Picking Splinters: Defensive Shift for Caps

It’s rather easy to look at this season’s NHL standings and believe that it is shaping up to be a disappointing season for the Washington Capitals.

After all, the Caps will enter the All-Star break in fifth place in the Eastern Conference just a season after leading the entire NHL in regular season points. Within their own division they trail the Tampa Bay Lightning, which will keep the Caps in the No. 4 to 5 range and likely set up a first-round playoff matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers – two teams I’m sure no franchise wants to find on their early playoff schedule.

Individually, the Washington stars aren’t scoring, with Alex Ovechkin managing a “mere” 19 goals, half the total of league leader Steven Stamkos. Nicklas Backstrom posted 101 points last season. He’s on pace for 75 this season.

The goalie situation remains in flux. While GM George McPhee firmly believes in his triumvirate of young netminders, health rather than performance has often dictated who among Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby has earned the start. And there’s still the fact that only one of them (Varlamov) has won a playoff series – with the robust number of “one” in that column.

So is it time to write off the season as another one of high hopes and low finishes in the nation’s capital? Or are we missing something. Well, I think it just may be the latter.

One of the Caps’ biggest bugaboos has been playing tight, defensive hockey, particularly in the playoffs. Well don’t look now but the Caps are playing tight defensive hockey.

As of Wednesday morning, Washington ranked seventh in goals against average with 2.48. If the Caps carried that through to the end of the season it would stand as the lowest GAA for the team since the 1999-2000 season.

That’s particularly impressive when you take it in the context of all the youth the Caps have from the blueline back. Defenseman John Carlson is a rookie. Karl Alzner had only played 51 games in the NHL prior to this season, a total he doubled up with Wednesday night’s game with Atlanta. But instead of playing like some wet-eared pups, they’ve hounded the opposition’s forwards and comprise the team’s top defensive pairing.

Some would use that fact to highlight the negatives of the other Caps defensemen … particularly Mike Green, a favorite target for Caps critics. But when you look at that overall defensive average, the numbers speak for themselves. It’s not that Green and the rest of the Caps’ blue line is bad, it’s that Carlson and Alzner are better.
Another part of the reason for the sour playoff speculation has been the lack of the Caps’ signature free-wheeling offense. Last season the Caps scored so often the goal light was taking on a strobe effect. This season, Washington sits a mediocre 14th in goals-per-game. They similarly sit 14th in 5-on-5 ratio, a highly predictive stat that measures how well a team performs at even strength. In 2009-10 as the top seed in the East, the Caps led the NHL in goal scoring by more than half a goal per game and were similarly impressive with a league high 5-on-5 ratio. The feeling this year is, since they’ve regressed in those categories, how can the Caps compete come playoff time?

Well, if you recall, those high flying stats didn’t help them too much in Round 1 against the Montreal Canadiens. And that’s what set head coach Bruce Boudreau on this defensive shift in the first place.

Boudreau wants the forwards playing deeper in the defensive zone, helping the defensemen to get the puck out of the zone with short passes rather than looking for Hail Mary’s down the ice. Though those rink-length breakout passes worked in the regular season, they dried up in the close-checking playoffs and cut off the Caps’ offense in crucial games. So this season Washington is focusing on securing the puck before starting their offense and playing more sound, disciplined hockey. And it seems to be working. In part.

The key now is to get the offense back in gear. Do that, and the Caps have the full package to be a Stanley Cup contender. And if you’re a betting man, you have to like those odds. After all, if you were to bet on which was more likely, the Capitals playing tight defense or Alex Ovechkin lighting up the scoreboard, which would you gamble on?

Even a pessimist would choose the latter.