Upon arriving in Washington earlier this week, Capitals Coach Dale Hunter made clear that his first priority would be improving the team’s play in its own zone. Once a solid defensive structure is in place, Hunter believes, success in other areas of the ice will follow.
Washington is seeking its first victory under Hunter, and the team struggled to create offense in his first two games, getting outshot by a combined 65-36. The first-time NHL coach sees progress, though, in the Capitals’ grasp and execution of the style of play he is preaching.
One of the significant alterations is that the Capitals are taking more of a man-on-man approach to an aggressive, pressure-based defense. In order to be successful, players must win one-on-one battles for pucks. By marking individual foes rather than rotating through zone coverage, there is less confusion among the defensemen and forwards over whom each should cover.
For example, against the Penguins on Thursday night, defenseman Karl Alzner was tasked with shadowing Sidney Crosby, and the Capitals blue-liner managed to hold the all-star center off the scoresheet.
“The onus is on that individual player to win their battle every time,” Alzner said. “If you don’t win your battle and you get beat, then we’re going to have an issue and you hope someone’s going to bail you out — your goalie or a weak-side forward. But it’s good this way; it keeps everybody extremely honest. You’ve got to make sure you’re doing your job and winning your job or it’s not going to work.”
Defensemen say they’ve been tasked with being about a stick-length away from an opponent, close enough to limit options without being so tight that it allows them to be beaten easily.
The hitch with this approach is that it can be more physically draining. It also likely will challenge Washington’s defense, which has been vulnerable against speedy opponents this season.
“It’s all about being in the right position when you don’t have the puck,” said assistant coach Jim Johnson, who was hired this week to help implement a more defensive mind-set. “I think most players are adaptable to any system, and they’ve all been receptive to the changes we’re making and ready to learn.”
Johnson said one of his goals is for defensemen to have an extra second or so to make correct decisions. To buy some of that time, the Capitals are using a 1-2-2 trap to slow things down in the neutral zone.
By making sure players, both forwards and blue-liners, are in defensively sound positions, Washington aims to reduce the odd-man rushes that have plagued its season and become an opportunistic team off the transition. If the Capitals have an edge in manpower, Johnson said he wants them to stand up and pressure opponents at the blue line and eliminate the need for playing in their own end entirely.
Cutting down on those breaks for foes is something that allows the Capitals to build confidence and regain control in their end.
“In Toronto, the puck would go up the boards, I’d try to step up and all they have to do is chip off the boards and if they have a step on our forwards it’s a two-on-one like that and creates a scoring chance,” defenseman John Erskine said. “By just accepting the rush, we take that away; that’s a good feeling.”
Said defenseman Jeff Schultz: “I think maybe a little bit easier, safer. I think at times [under former coach Bruce Boudreau] we were trying to force too many plays. The other teams were turning it over right at our blue line and they’d come back. Where now if we have nothing, just chip it out and let our forwards skate on to it in the neutral zone.”
Hunter and Johnson are quick to point out that their system is solely the responsibility of the defensemen. There is pressure on the forwards to back-check and pitch in to the effort in their own end. So far, players have been receptive. For example, in the last two games, Alex Ovechkin and other forwards were rarely seen floating near the offensive blue line waiting for a stretch pass.
“The biggest thing is he wants a three-on-three down low,” winger Mike Knuble said of the forwards’ role in the defensive zone. “There’s no switching, stay with your guy, and if there is a breakdown that extra winger has to be the last line of defense in front of the net.
After spending the bulk of the past four seasons becoming identified as an offensive juggernaut, the Capitals undoubtedly will take time to adjust to Hunter’s approach. But when asked this week if it’s tough to sell players on his approach, Hunter said any system that provides a better chance to win should be supported.
“Everybody wants to score goals; everybody does,” Hunter said before drawing on an example of why his system was suited to a game like his debut against St. Louis. “There was no room in the neutral zone; [the Blues] had four guys in there, so it’s a cat-and-mouse game out there where you can’t just go through it and turn pucks over. Instead of having a chance to win, you’re down, 6-1. You’ve got to stick to the system.”