By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 10:54 PM
PITTSBURGH - The Washington Capitals maintain the changes to their game in recent weeks are not a drastic overhaul, but rather the natural evolution of a team. Once defined almost entirely by a seemingly infinite ability to score, Washington is developing its defensive identity.
On Saturday, the Capitals will display their new priorities against their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the Winter Classic, the NHL's biggest stage aside from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Originally scheduled for 1 p.m. at Heinz Field, the league pushed the contest back to 8 p.m. to avoid complications with the rain showers forecasted for the morning and afternoon.
While the Capitals gradually added a new dimension, going 4-0-1 since snapping an eight-game losing streak, the Penguins were focused on perfecting their game. Pittsburgh boasts a record of 16-3-1 in its past 20 contests, and even on nights when the odds might not have been in their favor, the Penguins found ways to win. Washington hopes it can learn to do the same, even if it means there won't be offensive fireworks every night.
"There are 25 other teams in the league that are doing it, and we just felt the way things are going with our club, we needed to change something," General Manager George McPhee said. "That's the silver lining in the adversity that we went through. We needed to change something, and we did. Now there's the emphasis on defense that we haven't had enough of in the last few years. They've all enjoyed scoring a fair amount, but you're not going to win every game just by outscoring clubs."
Perhaps the most quantifiable evidence of Washington's defensive focus is that over the past 16 games, which includes the losing streak that was the worst in three seasons, the Capitals have allowed an average of 2.43 goals. With the low point of the 7-0 loss to New York on Dec. 12 removed, the average drops to 2.1 goals.
Even the Penguins noticed some small adjustments in the Capitals when the two teams met for the first time this season Dec. 23, a 3-2 shootout win for Pittsburgh.
"I thought that maybe they were a little more conscious of not letting us get to the paint and getting in front of their goalie," Penguins veteran Mike Rupp said, while Pascal Dupuis noted the heavy Washington forecheck.
"It's a pretty big change," Eric Fehr said. "We're really limiting teams' opportunities to gain speed in the neutral zone and come in and create opportunities. We're sitting back a little bit more, which is different for this team but I think it's going to work for us. . . . We're starting to work together, starting to pick up the systems a little bit more and get more comfortable with it."
To a man, the Washington players stress it is an ongoing process, and they ultimately seek a greater balance between offense and defense. The Capitals have struggled at times this season to score; in the same 16-game span as the defensive improvement, they've tallied 40 goals for an average of 2.5 per game. During the 2009-10 season, they led the NHL with a 3.82 average.
"We've just got to get used to it," Mike Knuble said of the lessened offensive output. "There are going to be more 3-0, 2-0 games maybe with an empty net. Three goals is going to win a lot of games, you can't score three goals and lose games. [When] you get three you have to be able to lock the game down. There are probably some guys that are having a tough time with it, but the spoils I hope will come at the end. That's what you have to believe."
The changes weren't simply the reaction to the December skid, either, but rather the larger lessons learned last spring when the Capitals, after racing to the Presidents' Trophy and locking up a postseason spot months ahead of their competition, were tossed from the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.
The offense-heavy approach worked fine - to a point.
"We haven't had the success that we've wanted," forward Brooks Laich said. "We've had great regular season success. Ultimately, we lost one-goal hockey games in the playoffs that put us home in April. You're always trying something new to improve and keep working at your game."
That's not to say, though, Washington wouldn't savor a victory against Pittsburgh in the national spotlight with the help of its revamped philosophy.
"In the end, it's about two points," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But let's not make a mistake: We're all people that want the game of hockey to grow, and this is a big deal. . . . It's going to be great."