“We took a couple days to really iron out a lot of questions that guys have had,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “We had some new guys coming in, and before, we were together for so long that you just kind of assumed that everyone knew. I feel like now we’re a lot more aware in our D-zone of how we want to play and how we want our structure to be.
“Kind of in the middle of the season, it felt like there was times where it seemed like guys were just man-on-man and guys were going everywhere. A defenseman would just take his forward and follow him all over the ice. And that was never our system, so I think we got away from it. Now we’re back.”
That late-season session sparked a defensive turnaround for the Capitals. They finished 14-6-0 in their last 20 games, winning the Metropolitan Division for a third straight year, and after a porous defense had been Washington’s greatest weakness, Columbus Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella credited defense as the Capitals’ strength in the teams’ first-round playoff series. If Washington hopes to advance to its first Eastern Conference finals in 20 years, its team defense will have to contain a star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins club that scored 3.29 goals per game this season, tied for third most in the league.
“They were pretty stingy,” Tortorella said after his Blue Jackets lost to the Capitals in six games. “I give Washington credit for, through the series, how well they defended. We thought we might be able to get something going against them. But they defended hard.”
That started with the impressive play of the Capitals’ top pairing, specifically Matt Niskanen, who acknowledged his season had been a rocky one. Columbus’s best offensive player, winger Artemi Panarin, had seven points in his first three games against Washington. By the end of the series, Tortorella was trying to get Panarin away from a matchup against Niskanen by moving him to different lines after the Capitals had kept Panarin off the score sheet for the final three games. Against Pittsburgh, Niskanen and partner Dmitry Orlov have the considerable challenge of containing superstar center Sidney Crosby and a top line that has scored a combined 16 goals and 19 assists at even strength in the playoffs. The Penguins’ first line scored all three goals in Thursday’s Game 1, but the Capitals were still pleased with their overall play in a 3-2 loss.
“I had stretches where I thought I was really good and a couple stretches where I stunk,” Niskanen said. “There wasn’t one period of time where it just turned and then it was good for the rest of the time. It was just up and down for the whole season. I know what I’m supposed to do and I just keep working to make sure that I’m ready for this time of year.”
Niskanen and Orlov were the only blue-line duo that remained intact from last season, when Washington allowed the fewest goals in the league. An expansion draft and salary cap constraints meant roster turnover, and the Capitals had to replace three of the seven defensemen who had been in the lineup during the playoffs a year ago. Growing pains were expected, and Washington had allowed roughly 32 shots per game through the first half of the regular season, the most in any season under Coach Barry Trotz.
General Manager Brian MacLellan addressed that deficiency before the trade deadline, adding Czech blue-liners Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek. Kempny was able to fill out Washington’s top four, playing on the left side of John Carlson, who had played with both rookie Christian Djoos and veteran Brooks Orpik throughout the season. Kempny’s strong skating ability gave the Capitals more mobility, helping them be more efficient in moving the puck out of their own end, and that speed means he is often the one getting back for pucks, taking some pressure off Carlson.
But those additions also meant the Capitals had to get on the same page, emphasizing some protocols that even the team’s tenured players had perhaps taken for granted. Not long after the arrival of Kempny and Jerabek, the Capitals met as a team and re-taught the basics. Terminology was clarified, and the aha moment came.
“There were too many gray areas, and guys were kind of caught in between a lot of spots in the defensive zone,” Orpik said. “Really we just simplified things, and there was just more clarity to it. I think that showed in the last 10 games.”
Said Carlson: “We finally kind of realized what was wrong and what we were doing wrong, not systematically, but just our reads and some of the responsibilities that took a little bit for guys to pick up on. Then we started defending more as a team versus individually.”
Over those final 10 games of the regular season, the Capitals allowed 2.50 goals per game, among the fewest in the league. Defense doesn’t just fall to the defensemen — goaltender Braden Holtby said that the high forward, the first forward back, is the most important defensive player on the ice — and it took Washington time to adjust to a roster that wasn’t as strong as the past two years, when the team could lean on talent if it was lax on some details.
“Our system really isn’t all that different, just different areas of the game are more important to this team than it was previously,” Niskanen said. “At least on paper we had more skill last year, so we could get away with a few things, where this year, little stuff like board battles and wall play is more important. Being above people defensively is more important. So we’ve had to work at it, and we’ve gotten better at it. We’re in a pretty good spot right now.”
Oshie would argue this team is even better defensively than last year’s.
“As the year goes on, you learn what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are and you can kind of focus on them to get your game to the level it needs to be at for playoffs,” he said. “We did a good job of that this year.”