The Capitals’ game in Winnipeg earlier this week was far from clean. If there was an encouraging sign to be found in the errors, though, players say it’s because the problems that were most prevalent –specifically the abundance of odd-man rushes allowed and the ill-timed pinches — should be easily correctable.
As they prepare to face a quick Edmonton squad Thursday night, the Capitals hope to learn from the errors they made in Winnipeg, where they were caught off guard by a fast rink with better ice than they’re accustomed to and more active boards that send pucks caroming in unexpected directions.
Rexall Place in Edmonton has what is widely regarded as the best and fastest ice in the NHL. If the Capitals aren’t able to adjust to that speed early on, the results could be more damaging than it was against the Jets, considering the Oilers’ skill up front.
“It is a real transition in your game. For players, especially the first couple times you come out here, the ice, all of a sudden the puck blows through your blade and it’s that much harder and crisper,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We can’t turn the puck over. They’re a very, very good skating, offensive team over there. If we turn the puck over, that’s what they want. We have to be prepared to play our game, which is get it behind their defense and try to out work them over the course of 60 minutes.”
So as Washington worked through its morning skate, players tried to get a feel of how the passes hit their sticks and rimmed the puck around the boards for a better idea of how it will move. Goaltending coach Olie Kolzig also fired shots off the end boards to see how the puck can bounce out in front.
Making those adaptations plays into Washington’s ability to have the strong defensive game it’s seeking, which is still very much a work in progress as players try to clean up their puck management, minimize turnovers and establish better support in their own end to move the play out of the zone more efficiently.
The Capitals are averaging 34.3 shots against per game, fifth most in the league, behind Toronto (34.5), Buffalo (34.5), Dallas (35.9) and Ottawa (38.6), and gave up an immense 47 shots on goal to Winnipeg. Washington doesn’t mind if shot totals creep up as long as the majority of those pucks are coming from the perimeter of the zone and goaltender Braden Holtby has the time and view to react.
But lately there’s been more of the threatening variety, in part because of the volume of turnovers and failed plays to clear the zone.
“It’s more than we’d like to,” Brooks Laich said. “We’re still working on stuff to be a solid, air-tight, defensive, suffocating team…. We’re not there yet and we understand that, but we can do a better job of getting in lanes, getting our sticks on pucks against shooters and making better decisions where we’re not giving up unnecessary shots.”
Defenseman Steve Oleksy said the Capitals’ first pass decisions in their own zone could use some improvement as well.
“You’ve got to put the next guy in a good position to make a play to get it out to the neutral zone,” Oleksy said. “If you throw him a puck along the boards, it’s tough with a guy coming down on him and back pressure. I think limiting the shots we’re giving up starts [with] us taking care of the puck a little better, making sure we get it out into the neutral zone.”