Capitals hope new defense-oriented game plan will see them through losing streak and beyond

Defenseman Mike Green (52) on the Capitals' new approach: "I think this is the type of game we need to play to be successful in the playoffs." (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Defenseman Mike Green (52) on the Capitals' new approach: "I think this is the type of game we need to play to be successful in the playoffs." (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 12:17 AM

As Coach Bruce Boudreau watched his offensively gifted Washington Capitals struggle to score goals over the past seven games, he began to contemplate altering the team's flowing style. After the Capitals were shut out for the fourth time in 13 games this past Sunday, Boudreau met with the rest of the coaching staff and they outlined a more defense-oriented game plan.

"Only fools or stubborn fools, when something's not working, don't change for the sake of not changing," said Boudreau, who was pleased with the early returns as the Capitals played one of their best defensive games of the season Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks. The contest concluded as a 2-1 overtime loss, but Washington showed a dedicated effort to get back to the defensive end on every shift, minimized turnovers and yielded just a handful of scoring chances.

Taking a safer approach is still an adjustment for the Capitals, and they must prove they can execute it completely for more than one game - something they'll have a chance to do Saturday night, when they face the Boston Bruins for the final time this season. If the visiting Capitals can successfully add a stingier dimension to their identity, it might not only see them through stretches when goals don't come in bunches, but also through gritty playoff contests.

"I think this is the type of game we need to play to be successful in the playoffs," defenseman Mike Green said. "The only reason why I say that is because now having played in the playoffs for three years, this is what teams have done to us and this is how they've shut us down. . . . It was an area in our game that we needed to work on and we needed to adjust, and we're consciously making the decision to adjust."

Playing with a dedicated shut-down line and having all five skaters work deep in their own zone is a different style than the one the Capitals have grown accustomed to under Boudreau. Rather than pinching up as much and looking to join the rush constantly, Washington's blue-liners are asked to not come up as high in the neutral zone and play a more traditional defensive role, defenseman Karl Alzner said. The forwards are tasked with making sure they backcheck effectively and don't sacrifice stability on the back end.

"It's a little less aggressive chasing pucks up the ice and just tightening things up a bit," forward Eric Fehr said. "Teams have been managing to pick us apart recently, and I think with this system we'll be able to stick together a little more and create more turnovers. It's definitely different, but it might be what we need - a couple of different systems we can go to in different situations."

Boudreau said he's not sure if the defensive style will be as prominent when the Capitals start filling opposing nets once again. He does want the team to continue working on it to the point where they're comfortable and confident playing a shut-down method, though, so that the option will be ready in Washington's toolbox.

"That's the way you have to play in the playoffs," Boudreau said. "If we learn how to do it now, hopefully by playoff time we'll have it down pat."

Capitals notes: Washington signed defenseman John Erskine to a two-year contract extension worth $3 million on Friday. Through 31 games this season, Erskine is averaging 15 minutes 10 seconds of ice time. He has scored a career-high three goals and has a plus-3 rating. . . .

Alexander Semin (undisclosed lower-body injury) will not travel to Boston but could meet the Capitals in Ottawa on Sunday, Boudreau said. . . .

Defensemen Scott Hannan and Tyler Sloan are the latest to come down with the flu-like illness that has made its way around the locker room. Whether they play against the Bruins will be game-time decisions.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company