Trying to get around Washington Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt on the ice is like trying to run through a mosh pit--expect to get tossed around, slammed into and maybe knocked completely off your feet. Such an analogy is appropriate for a player who cranks up Rage Against The Machine and Metallica before most games.
He likes his music the same way he likes his hockey: hard-hitting and in-your-face. But over the last six weeks, Witt has tempered that aggressive spirit and mixed his love of a bone-shattering check with a smarter overall defensive game. He and veteran Calle Johansson have formed the Capitals' top defensive pair, with Witt's improvement mirroring the team's defensive turnaround.
"He's playing great," Coach Ron Wilson said. "I was worried there for a while because he was struggling the first month. Witt is getting his confidence to the point where we can ask Calle to be more involved offensively and we know Witt is going to be back there and he's not going to get beat one-on-one."
Witt's game cannot be defined by statistics; he is a defensive defenseman. Offense isn't his game; keeping the puck out of the net by any means necessary is. When he's at his best, he can go unnoticed unless he is punishing an opposing forward or breaking up an odd-man rush. Early in the season, he was quite noticeable, for all the wrong reasons. His focus seemed to waver. He was not playing as physical a style as the coaches would have liked. When he did run someone over, he often was out of position, leaving goaltender Olaf Kolzig vulnerable.
Witt and Johansson are playing a significant number of minutes and matching up against the opposition's top forward lines. Despite that heavy responsibility, Witt also is finding ways to contribute offensively, making sharp passes, joining the rush and firing his hard shot, although he has yet to score this season.
In every game, it seems a little more of Johansson's poise and consistency rub off on Witt. They seem like an odd couple--a hard-rocking, tattooed 24-year-old Canadian and a 32-year-old relatively conservative Swede--but they appear to have a fine rapport, regularly going out to dinner on the road and trading barbs constantly.
"Unfortunately, with him looking the way he does, it's kind of embarrassing to be seen out with him," Johansson quipped. "We have very good communication--a lot of jabs and back-and-forth. We get along really good on and off the ice, and I think that's very important.
"We've gotten to know each other quite well now. A lot of the times I like to read off him. I let him do whatever he wants and try to react off that."
Witt's tenacity is contagious. He and defenseman Ken Klee are in the top three in the NHL in hits--a statistic that varies from arena to arena and is often disputed--and the Capitals lead the league in that category. His play seems to bring the bench to life and to shift momentum.
Last week, Witt was at his physical best against the New York Islanders, dishing out four hits. He banged around beefy forwards Brad Isbister and enforcer Gino Odjick and upended defenseman Zdeno Chara--at 6 feet 5 and 255 pounds, one of the biggest players in NHL history.
"He sent those guys flying," Wilson said. "Those were just huge hits and that's a huge team. When you see guys like that going on their [backside] it really picks your team up."
Wilson attributes much of Witt's success to always keeping two hands on his stick. Kolzig believes Witt is playing much smarter hockey, working longer at practice, thriving on more playing time and taking cues from Johansson. For all the kudos, Witt is still determined to get better.
"Individually, I'm happy, but there's always room for improvement," Witt said. "That's what you try to do every day at practice--keep improving and try to take your game to another level."
Capitals Notes: Struggling forward Jan Bulis has been moved back to center, with Joe Sacco and Ulf Dahlen on the wing.