The Capitals kicked off back-to-back games this weekend with a 5-2 win over the Predators, thanks to a strong start and the ability to build on that advantage. Five different players scored goals, including rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt, who notched his first NHL goal.
Five thoughts on the win over Nashville.
1. Offense from the defense. Goals are a bonus, Coach Adam Oates says when discussing the type of offense he needs from Washington’s defensemen. He needs them to be able to make smart pinches and good decisions while walking the blueline to keep possession alive and in the offensive zone. He needs them to know when to put a puck on net through traffic or dump it back in the corner after the forwards have recovered on the play.
It can’t just be the defensemen with offensive leanings, like Mike Green and John Carlson, but every blueliner needs to have the confidence to be able to pull those plays off. If the Capitals defensemen aren’t involved in keeping plays moving forward, the team’s overall offense will become that much easier for opponents to shut down.
“Big picture, you have to, to play in this league you have to. You’ve gotta play both ends of the rink as much as possible,” Oates said Saturday night. “Obviously every guy has his strengths, but teams move so much now in five-man units offensively, defensively you can’t have that gap. It creates an odd-numbered situation and territory is so vital. On the blueline, the way teams play D, you’ve got to be able to move laterally and get the puck to the net.”
Against Nashville, the Capitals received the contributions from the defensemen consistently throughout the contest. They worked the puck around the top of the zone giving the forwards time to get in front to create potential scoring chances, helped to sustain the cycle and wore down the Predators’ defense.
They also got the bonus of goals, as both Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt got on the scoresheet.
2. A defenseman branches out. Alzner is the best example among the defensemen of a player working to move beyond his comfort zone. Washington’s most stay-at-home blueliner has spent a lifetime trying to avoid turnovers and protect his own zone, but he’s gradually becoming more willing to handle the puck on the blueline or move up into the zone to make a play.
“I’ve asked him to add that to his game. I know it’s still defense first, but he plays so many minutes. Every little touch that he makes just benefits us big picture,” Oates said. “It doesn’t always turn into your turn, but the more we work on it, when it is his turn we need a goal from him or a good play. He got one [Saturday], great.”
A week ago against the Islanders, Alzner pinched up ice to keep the play in the offensive zone to set up Nicklas Backstrom’s game-tying shorthanded goal late in regulation. Saturday night when he had plenty of space and saw traffic in front of the Predators’ netminder, Alzner moved to his right and shot through a screen to put the Capitals up 3-0 in the first period.
For Alzner, having more confidence when presented with that situation was as simple as seeing the play a different way.
“Whenever I get the puck from my partner I always take it, and take a step to the left and that really limits your options. It was never something that I would corral it into the middle of the ice and [that gives] you both directions to shoot,” Alzner said. “I’m feeling more comfortable holding it up there and making a play but nowhere near as comfortable as 52 or Carly.”
3. Long time coming. In all this talk of Alzner, it’s important to note that his goal against the Predators was his first goal at home at Verizon Center. It only took him until his 148th career regular season appearance there to get one.
“It’s about time,” Alzner quipped after the game Saturday.
4. Patrick Wey debut. The fourth player to make his NHL debut this season and 12th defenseman to suit up for the Capitals this season, Wey made it through Saturday’s contest. He skated 16 shifts for a total of 13:36 ice time paired with fellow prospect Dmitry Orlov.
Neither Wey nor Orlov was on the ice for a goal against, and after some early-game jitters that saw him bobble the puck a few times, Wey settled down.
“I thought as the game went along he looked better,” Oates said. “The first few times he touched the puck it looked like it was a foreign subject to him but after that he got into the game, made a couple good reads some good plays.”
Given that Oates doesn’t like to judge players on one game — especially when that game is an NHL debut with nerves a significant factor — don’t be surprised to see Wey and Orlov as the Capitals’ third pairing Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
5. Martin Erat. The disgruntled veteran winger had one of his better games against a team not named the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night. After he made his trade request public, Erat was scratched for three games and then spent two centering the fourth line.
But against his former squad, Erat played between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward on the third line and skated 16:31, his fourth-highest ice time of the season and most since Nov. 2. He set up Nate Schmidt’s goal in the fourth period with a smart play after gaining control of the puck following a faceoff win and attempted four shots on goal. It’s been nearly two weeks since Erat went public with his trade demand, and with the NHL’s holiday roster freeze (Dec. 19-27) approaching, you have to think the Capitals are trying to showcase him. With a sizable cap hit and having requested trades twice in less than eight months, there likely isn’t a bull market for Erat, and playing him scant minutes wasn’t going make him more valuable to potential trade partners.
Asked about Erat prior to Saturday’s contest, Predators Coach Barry Trotz offered a little perspective on the veteran winger.
“I will say Marty has traditionally been a slow starter and has always picked it up and been the best guy on our hockey team, always, the last 60 games — when we play  games,” Trotz said. “You look at his whole career, he’s been a slow starter and he has a good last 60 games. He’s now in that window.”