In the aftermath of another lopsided loss Friday night -- the Washington Capitals' fifth in seven games -- Coach Bruce Cassidy decided to make major changes.
The creative, reactive, free-flowing system the rookie coach brought to Washington was quickly replaced by what Cassidy calls a more "robotic" forechecking system, something the players quietly hoped for and immediately embraced. After another loss Sunday to Atlanta -- due more to individual errors than the system -- they executed the new template to near perfection Tuesday night in a 4-1 win at Pittsburgh, a performance all agree was the best of the season.
"You have to play a tight system in this league," team captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "All the good teams do it, and that's why they're good teams. If you have a forward back and can make every team have a three-on-three rush, it's going to be tough on them and frustrate them and then maybe that causes them to have turnovers and that helps our offense."
The Capitals struggled with Cassidy's tactics for the first 24 games of the season, complicating the 37-year-old's indoctrination to the NHL. Going into Friday's game against Ottawa, they were still using a forechecking system in which the forwards were allowed to make their own reads on how the play would develop and respond to the movement of their fellow checkers. The system often left the defensemen outnumbered, as in that 6-2 loss to the Senators.
Now, the responsibilities of each forward are more defined; they are no longer making reads and one forward always remains "high" in the offensive zone on the forecheck, hanging close to the blue line to prevent odd-man rushes and aid the defensemen. It is more similar to the system Washington played for five years under former coach Ron Wilson, and a stylistic change that could resonate throughout the season.
"I like to be a little more aggressive and give the guys the freedom and not have as defined of a system where the three forwards know where they have to go at all times," Cassidy said. "And I've always liked to make that third forward make a read and allow him to purse pucks a little harder and that's all I ever wanted to introduce here and it's not brain surgery or not anything out of the ordinary.
"Unfortunately, we didn't have a good response with our high forward and a lot of the times it was leading to three-on-twos and odd-man rushes off the forecheck, which should never happen. So we sort of had to get away from what I like to do and try to implement something where we had a higher forward" in a defensive posture.
"We went back to square one, where we puck support with the puck and away from the puck, we're a little more structured in terms of who goes where and not giving the guys as much freedom, and it's worked for us the last two games. We've been really diligent and it's not so much the system, it's whether the players want to do it or not, and that's the same with anything."
The Capitals had allowed 28 goals over seven games prior to Tuesday night, yet managed to shut down the league's most dangerous team. Washington shut out the Penguins for 57 minutes, held them to 17 shots -- one off Pittsburgh's season low -- and the defensemen and forwards enjoyed a symmetry that was long lacking.
This system is not as rigid as Wilson's, in which the center was always the "high" forward -- either winger or the center could fill that role depending on the situation -- but, unlike the past, forwards "don't have the freedom to branch off and make reads anymore," Cassidy said.
The Capitals appear in no hurry to get back such freedom.
"I think the guys realized that we have to follow the directives and directions in order to win, and we didn't do that before," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "And we proved that we could [Tuesday] night. That was a great example of how the forwards can help us [defensemen]. That was great, great, great as far as playing the system and their defensive commitment. They were committed to defense and not turning the puck over and the third man was high all the time and there were never any odd-man rushes against us. That's the way we have to play."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Jean-Francois Fortin (stomach virus) did not practice yesterday but is feeling much better after losing 10 pounds in three days. . . . Barring injuries, defenseman Steve Eminger, 19, will leave the team Monday or Tuesday to participate in a training camp for the Canadian world junior national team and could miss several weeks, General Manager George McPhee said. . . . McPhee has contacted most of the general managers in the NHL over the last few days, sources said, expressing a willingness to make deals, particularly for a defenseman, although that commodity is in short supply. . . . Defensemen Jason Doig and Rick Berry each registered his first points as a Capital on Tuesday night.