A coach's journey to acknowledged genius sometimes follows an unexpected route. In the case of Bryan Murray, the Washington Capitals' sudden burst of offensive ability can be traced to the revision of the forechecking system he implemented during the all-star break.
Through their first 55 games, the Capitals averaged 3.27 goals, third lowest in the NHL, and they managed only five goals in four games before the break. Now they have won three straight games, totaling 16 goals while retaining their No. 1 defensive ranking by yielding only nine.
So what is the adjustment that inspired the offensive surge? Concerned by the ability of opponents to trap his forwards and execute three-on-two and two-on-one breaks, Murray switched to a more conservative, defense-oriented forechecking system.
Instead of having two forwards forecheck aggressively while the third stayed high, Murray has restricted his men in the offensive zone so that only one may go in deep until contact has been made with the puck carrier.
Ideally, that should create more 2-1 games, but the Capitals have taken advantage of opponents' errors to post 5-3, 6-2 and 5-4 victories.
"It's actually designed to be more defensive, but it's resulting in more scoring opportunities," said winger Mike Gartner, whose 35 goals lead the Capitals. "We had tried to institute an aggressive forechecking system, but we weren't getting any goals and we kept getting burned when the two guys were caught in.
"So we go to a defensive system and now we're getting all kinds of chances. I can't figure it out. Let's just say it's a funny game and right now we're laughing about it."
Murray shook his head and smiled as he tried to explain the unexpected payoff from a move that could be tied to desperation.
"We've tried to play a hurry-up, aggressive game and force teams to do things they didn't want to do," Murray said. "But some teams, like St. Louis, were holding our guys up, then sending the puck around the boards and out and catching us in deep. I've asked our guys to be more patient, to make a safe play rather than a gamble play. We still allow the second guy to go when there's contact, but if we can't get there we want to be in position to support, to turn over the puck in the neutral zone and to come from behind the play.
"We're keeping our defensemen in the offensive zone a little longer, so basically we're being more aggressive with our defensemen, less aggressive with our forwards. The other team still has to make a good play and the forward we're holding back has been in position to create some turnovers. As an extra bonus, we're fresher when we get possession and we're getting more results."
With all the prescouting that takes place in the NHL, future opponents will note the change and try to take measures to beat it. If they do, Murray will adjust things as necessary, but he said: "The Islanders and Calgary knew what we were doing. It came down to execution. They had to do something to beat it and we were in position to cut them off."
Second in the Patrick Division and four points behind Philadelphia, the Capitals will begin a five-game road trip Wednesday in New Jersey . . . Defenseman Rod Langway endured a lengthy practice at Mount Vernon yesterday, said he would put more pressure on his strained right thigh today and expects to face the Devils . . . Pete Peeters, the NHL leader in goals-against average (2.62) and save percentage (.903), was named NHL player of the week for the second time in three weeks, in recognition of his three victories . . . Defenseman John Barrett, who broke a knee Feb. 20, 1987, will play Friday for Binghamton of the AHL. He will play five AHL games, then rejoin the Capitals Feb. 28.
Flyers 5, Whalers 4:
Dave Brown's goal ended the game in Philadelphia after 3:35 of overtime.
Mike Liut stopped Derrick Smith's shot but Brown knocked in the rebound for his fourth game-winner this season.
Rangers 3, Canadiens 1:
In New York, the Canadiens' losing streak reached five games as Walt Poddubny and Michel Petit scored in the second period.
Red Wings 6, Kings 1:
Steve Yzerman scored his 45th goal of the season and assisted on another in Inglewood, Calif.