A hallmark of the New York Rangers’ style under Coach John Tortorella is an aggressive forecheck. New York consistently bring two, occasionally three, players to pressure an opponent deep in the defensive zone to force rushed decisions and turnovers that allows it to establish possession and set up in the offensive zone.
The Capitals are well aware that for their own success in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, they need to negate that forecheck’s effectiveness with precise plays in their own zone and take advantage of it at the same time.
“We know if we do get it past them we might have some odd-man rushes; it’s handling that pressure that’s the tough part,” Karl Alzner said. “The first few shifts will probably be a little bit difficult, they’ll come at you pretty hard and start hitting everything but after a while the guys that don’t normally hit will stop. The guys that normally do will continue but when some let up, that’s when you try and take advantage of it. If we can get things going from our D zone we should be able to create some chances.”
Coach Adam Oates’s defensive system is built around support. He wants blueliners to be able to make smart passes to either their defensive partner or up to a backchecking forward and move the puck quickly out of the Washington zone. That’s also why Oates insists upon having a right- and left-handed defenseman on each pair, because being on their naturally strong side makes for faster, more seamless zone exits.
“It’s been comforting knowing that we can go back for pucks and have at least a split second to make a decision and make a play,” said Mike Green, who is regularly targeted by the Rangers’ forecheck. “The D-men have gotten really confident with going back and making passes and making the right play and it’s really helped our success over the last while.”
Each moment gained to make the correct decision eliminates potential mistakes and increases Washington’s ability to minimize its time in its own end.
“Guys are so good at this stage they can kind of read where you’re going, but that extra split second you can get a jump if you’re skating or just to assess the play you have in front of you,” John Carlson said. “That little extra time, if worse comes to worse you can still make a play to give ourselves a chance to have those breakouts rather than having to battle and get stuck in the zone.”
Those rapid passes and outs have also diminished the wear and tear on each individual defensemen this season. By not holding on to the puck deep in their own zone, they’ve been able to avoid some of the crushing hits by an opposing forecheck.
Each hit they avoid lessens the chance of injury and allows the defensemen to maintain a little extra energy, but there’s only so much they can do to avoid that physical grind in the postseason.
“We’re not getting run as much as previous years,” John Erskine said, “But no matter who you play in the playoffs, especially the Rangers, they’re going to forecheck us hard. Every chance the get they’re going to try and hit us.”
The responsibility for helping to expedite the play out of the zone doesn’t fall exclusively on the defensemen, though. Forwards need to not only backcheck to counteract an oncoming foe and provide an option for passes, but they are tasked with making an opponent’s forwards re-route in the neutral zone so they don’t have as easy a path across the blue line.
“Maybe give our D men an extra second to get their heads up, find a play, find somebody open and just have a little bit more time with the puck,” Troy Brouwer explained. “We’ve got to be able to get back hard as well for them so they have quicker outs rather than just rimming the puck and throwing their problem to somebody else.”