In 2010 NHL playoffs, Washington Capitals must adjust to defensive mentality

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; D01

Look back at the Washington Capitals' season, and there is no shortage of beautiful goals to admire. Pick one from the stick of Alex Ovechkin, of Nicklas Backstrom, of Alexander Semin or Mike Green -- each of them among the most offensively gifted players at their positions, each capable of leaving an opposing player behind on a fake, each as likely to nimbly set up a teammate as score themselves. The Capitals scored more goals than any NHL team in the last 13 seasons, and as veteran opponent Rod Brind'Amour of Carolina put it, "They're obviously the most skilled team in the league -- by far."

Thursday night, though, the Montreal Canadiens arrive at Verizon Center, and the playoffs begin. Thus, each and every skilled member of this Washington team understands things are about to change.

The space they had to maneuver during the regular season may suddenly disappear. The hits they may have avoided only a week ago could come thundering to completion, disrupting a rush. And the goals, almost certainly, will be more difficult to come by.

"You don't see a lot of high-scoring games in the playoffs," Capitals defenseman Tom Poti said. Indeed, in 19 of the last 20 seasons, scoring has dropped from the regular season to the postseason, and an anomaly has followed: No team that led the NHL in scoring -- as the Capitals did this year -- has gone on to win the Stanley Cup since the Pittsburgh Penguins, back in 1992, before Ovechkin turned 7.

So there is regular season hockey and there is playoff hockey. The Capitals' offensive firepower has helped them become the "it" team in the District. But in the playoffs, offense can be mitigated by stellar goaltending and focused defense, and Washington may have to adjust.

"The playoffs are different," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I don't know how you explain it, but it is. It just is."

There are lots of old hockey expressions that are used at this time of year. "Things just tighten up," is an example provided by Capitals forward Eric Fehr. But none is more important, and perhaps more difficult to pin down, than whether or not a team is "built for the playoffs." Boudreau first heard the term in 1978, when the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team for which he played, traded Errol Thompson, a deft scorer, to Detroit for Dan Maloney, a physical, hard-checking player.

"They said it was for the playoffs," Boudreau said, "because, according to the world, the pace picks up, and things get more physical."

That is not to say that the more physical players find a way to check harder. Rather, players and coaches said, the consistency of effort can change across an entire team. Think of a player who -- in the middle of a long road trip in, say, January -- doesn't really feel like diving in front of a puck, because so much of the season remains, and the sacrifice seems too much. Now, in April, that puck suddenly seems worth blocking.

"Guys who don't normally try and finish checks all the time are now finishing them a lot more," Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. "Blocking shots when, at other times, guys maybe do their best [to] maybe 'accidentally' get out of the way. . . . When you're finishing your checks, maybe somebody twists something -- bangs a shoulder up -- just through the course of the wear and tear of the game. . . . Those kind of little things, so many of them, they can change a series."

The Capitals, who lost in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins in last year's second round, made some moves to address all that, both in the offseason and during the year. The most notable: signing Knuble, a free agent, away from Philadelphia. A bruising winger who has fit in perfectly with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the Capitals' top line, Knuble is, as Poti said, "built for the playoffs." The theory: Ovechkin and Backstrom may be capable of creating some of the prettiest goals in the league, but when teams truly focus on them, Knuble might be able to simply will a few home.

"You've seen my goals this year," Knuble said. "They're not exactly skill goals."

Which, for the playoffs, is just fine. The trick for the Capitals will be to remain who they were in the regular season -- "You work all year to develop the right habits," Laich said -- and use that identity in the setting of the playoffs.

"They have such a good offensive-machine kind of thing where they can be down two and not have it be a big deal, or be up two and then get up four," said Brind'Amour, a 20-year NHL veteran who captained Carolina to the 2006 Stanley Cup. "It's not like they let teams hang around. And you can never count them out if they were down, because they have those special players that can turn a game around.

"But in the playoffs, that can change, even for a skilled team. Being down two goals in the playoffs is a little different than being down two in the regular season."

So the Capitals spent the better part of the season's final month preparing for such a reality. After a shootout victory over Pittsburgh in March, one in which the Capitals allowed 42 shots, forward Eric Belanger, a midseason acquisition, said, "I think we have to tighten up in the defensive zone." After an overtime loss at Carolina the previous week, Fehr said, "We have to learn to lock it down a little better."

"We have a lot of different weapons," center Brendan Morrison said. "We come at teams. We're aggressive. We challenge guys one-on-one. But there are certain situations when -- if we don't have an outnumbered rush or [are] in a situation where we try to make something out of nothing -- we can't afford to do that. We have to get it in our head that the smart thing is just wait for the next chance."

All that said, the Capitals aren't about to apologize for who they are. "People want to label us, that's great," Boudreau said. "I think we can play -- regardless." They are not overly irresponsible defensively; they led the NHL in goal-scoring margin and finished 16th in goals allowed. And they believe, on the eve of the postseason, that they are, in fact, built for the playoffs -- even if not in the traditional sense.

"We play the way we play," Laich said. "We're not going to go into the playoffs trying to flip a switch and play a different way. We've been successful all year because of how we play, how we attack. We play downhill hockey. Some people might call it aggressive, but we call it pressure hockey, and I think it's very tough to play against."

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