When the Washington Capitals play Coach Ron Wilson's system to perfection, bodies should fly. The wingers are free to forecheck deep in the offensive zone, where they can crash into defensemen and force turnovers. The defensemen should jump up and fill the gap, standing up the opposing forwards with their bodies. Opposing forwards should be punished when they roam around Washington's net; Wilson's forwards should be softening opponents by finishing their checks along the boards.
But in the first 10 games of the season the Capitals did little of that. They played soft hockey at both ends of the ice and absorbed much more contact than they initiated.
Wednesday night the Capitals finally played a strong physical game and it culminated in their best performance of the season, a 3-1 victory over Ottawa that snapped a six-game winless streak. It's true the Senators are even less physically imposing than Washington, but it was a start.
"It's hard to score, but it's easy to hit," Wilson said. "And one of the ways we can get our fans into the game is if we finish our checks early and show the other team we're going to at least play physical hockey--we might be struggling to score, but we're willing to grind it out and play a physical game.
"We have to be relentless about finishing our checks and I still think we can be more physically involved than we were. But it was nice to see we got a fairly decent body check out of almost every shift."
Tonight's opponent, Toronto, also plays a speed and skill game and its creative forwards don't respond well to physical abuse, either. Wilson expects more of what he saw Wednesday, when he emphasized physical play in his pregame remarks.
Enforcer Chris Simon and defenseman Brendan Witt rushed toward Ottawa forward Andre Roy after a questionable hit on defenseman Calle Johansson, and Simon ended up fighting the rookie. Simon set the tone and his teammates fed off that.
"That's definitely a big part of my job--to make sure I play physically all the time," Simon said. "We needed to start the game with a physical presence, and there's no better way than for me to go out and have a good fight."
First-line players such as Peter Bondra and Glen Metropolit played the body and went hard to the net, willing to pay a price (Bondra had a key screen on Metropolit's second goal, which put the game away). Winger Ulf Dahlen had a big hit behind the net and also delivered the team's best open-ice hit of the season, upending Radek Bonk at center ice. Winger James Black pummeled Kevin Dineen in front of the crease as he tried to knock in a rebound. Furthermore, the forwards embraced their defensive responsibilities in the system and aided the defense every shift.
"When the forwards play like that, it's unbelievable," Johansson said. "I credit the whole win to our forwards. They played a hell of a game. They made our job so much easier."
Defensemen Brendan Witt and Ken Klee banged Ottawa around, and for the first time all season the opposition didn't get to hang out around the crease and take multiple cracks at loose pucks. Tough guys such as Dale Hunter, Mark Tinordi, Craig Berube and Enrico Ciccone have departed, and the Capitals lack the size and grit to pound other teams, but that doesn't excuse that kind of play. On most nights only Witt, Steve Konowalchuk and Joe Sacco throw body checks with any regularity.
"The biggest thing with physical hockey is it has to be right through your lineup," said assistant coach Tim Hunter, third all-time in NHL penalty minutes. "Sure, there's a couple of guys initiating, but we need everybody conscious of the fact that we've got to get in the way of the other team and block their path to the net.
"And we haven't been doing that and [Wednesday] night we did that. It doesn't have to be a highlight hit--just get in their way and make every inch of the ice hard for them to get to."
Capitals Notes: Former Capital Dmitri Khristich has three goals and six points in five games since signing with Toronto. . . . The Maple Leafs have the best goals-against average in the NHL.