Goaltender Braden Holtby knew it would take time for the Washington Capitals to find their way in Coach Adam Oates’s system. He was already part of the transition once as a member of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears and he understood from the start that it wasn’t going to be an instantaneous adjustment even at the NHL level.
But as the Capitals have won six of their last nine games, it appears that repetition is evolving into habit. Each player’s execution of his role within the greater scheme is starting to become more instinctual, and the Capitals are growing comfortable relying on the system and each other.
“I believed it was gonna happen,” Holtby said recently. “Everyone else, there was shock on everyone’s faces that we were out of the blocks so slow, but I knew it was gonna turn around. The system is very good, and it just takes a little bit of time to learn it.”
Take the Capitals’ 3-0 win at Winnipeg on Saturday. In the first period Washington was significantly outshot (15-5) by the Jets but didn’t allow many threatening chances. The Capitals limited Winnipeg’s shots to the outside with little or no traffic in front of the net.
So while totals on the scoresheet were lopsided, the Capitals were confident that their play would lead to turnovers and offensive opportunities. That’s precisely what happened.
“That’s the way the system is supposed to be played. There might be some high shot totals — that’s what we saw in Hershey — but a lot of perimeter stuff,” Holtby said following the win in Winnipeg. “It frustrates other teams when they can’t get into the house area in the slot and you could see it was just frustrating them.”
While the Capitals’ execution is improving, it’s still not to the point where their actions and decisions are truly second nature. That comes with time.
“It’s just not clockwork yet. It’s not automatic,” Oates said last week. “Guys are still making decisions from habits from before, from whatever team they were on or whatever system it was. It’s still not automatic all the time. We have waves of it where it looks automatic. But then we shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit.”
Any team, no matter how ingrained its style of play, will make mistakes. A significant turning point is when that team is able to continue despite its errors, minimize the damage and regroup within the confines of the system. The Capitals (8-11-1) haven’t reached that stage yet, as was clear in their 4-1 loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 27.
To advance to that stage, confidence in the method of play is important but each player’s faith in his teammates to execute properly and be in the right place at the right time is equally critical, if not more.
“It takes trust. You’ve got to know that your D-men or that off-side winger are going to do their job and make sure they’re in place so you don’t have to try and cover for them,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “When you have guys that trust each other and can go out and just play and not think it makes the whole game easier, so that when something does get turned over or even if we do end up going into our own zone guys know where to be and guys know where the outs are.”
It’s not an easy task to get a full 23-man game roster functioning as a complete and relentless unit, with each line and defensive pairing able to pick up where the previous one left off with little to no drop-off.
That Oates’s system is relatively physically demanding adds another wrinkle. It requires that every skater be present in the play, if only for support, even if they don’t touch the puck at all. The expectation of skating up ice to maintain a presence in the play regardless if a player touches the puck has been one of the toughest adjustments, according to winger Eric Fehr. When the Capitals get tired, Fehr explained, it’s easy for them to want to deviate from that part of the system.
But when they stick with it, it makes everything easier to accomplish, and that’s the goal.
“I think it gets everybody on the same page,” Fehr said. “When everybody’s working it together it requires less energy, we’re right beside each other for chips and support and I feel like you’re not chasing the puck as much when everybody’s on the same page.”