Washington Capitals: Defense Is Defining Their Season


Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames last night confirmed a trend to their season thus far: fire wagon hockey has left the nation’s capital.

For those looking at the box scores of the Washington Capitals recent wins over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Carolina Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames, you might be noticing a trend. The scores are all lopsided. While the number of goals scored is nearly as impressive as the highlight reel tallies themselves, there’s another motive at work here. The Washington Capitals are making it very hard for opposing teams to score on them.

The 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks cannot and should not be dismissed lightly. There was a lot going wrong in that game for the Washington Capitals and they will need to figure out how to prevent it all from happening again. To the Sharks credit, they played a phenomenal game against Washington. If we can all admit that it wasn’t the Capitals’ finest night and look at the larger body of work on the season thus far, the outlook is much more positive.

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To this point, Washington has scored 19 goals on the season and allowed in only 12. If you consider that five of those 12 came in one game against San Jose, the number shrinks down to seven.  That’s an average of less than two goals allowed per game. Against the competition that the Washington Capitals have faced, that’s a mighty feat. The Caps have also out shot their competition 146 to 121 through 5 games.

The game against Calgary really cemented it. What I saw, all night, were Flames puck-carriers being harassed. For much of the night, when a Flame had the puck, it was either batted or poked away by a Washington stick or steered towards the more useless areas of the ice or erased along the boards. There was no room to maneuver. Brooks Orpik, John Carlson and Taylor Chorney really excelled at this.

The gap control shown by those three on incoming forwards was as illustrated in textbook hockey tutorials. The pinnacle defensive moments were held by Carlson who repeatedly timed his defensive slides and frustrated the Calgary shooters by robbing them of any lane to shoot in. It must have been frustrating for the Flames as they were whacked at and stripped of the puck all night. You could see the frustration mount for the Flames.

It hasn’t just been the defensemen. The Washington Capitals forwards have been winning one-on-one battles, stripping pucks, intercepting passes, and chipping pucks away from the opposition all over the ice. They’ve done so well at it, it reminded me of a quote that Barry Trotz gave to Sportsnet back when his coaching term started in Washington last season.

"“I made it pretty simple. When you have the puck, do what you do. When you don’t have the puck, I want you to do what I want you to do. If you do that, you’ll have the puck more.”"

With obvious chemistry forming all over the ice, you realize that you simply can’t script a lot of the shimmying and wiggling that these players do as they score. The Washington Capitals are incredibly imaginative with the puck in open space and will shine if given space and allowed to do so. A number of these same players did exactly that for several seasons under former head coach Bruce Boudreau.

The downside of that was that the Capitals were often scoring six goals while allowing five. “Fire Wagon Hockey” was certainly entertaining to watch, but you never had the feeling that the team could clamp down and defend a lead. When Dale Hunter came in as head coach after Boudreau, the opposite occurred. Too little creativity was allowed under the strict edict of team defense, but the Washington Capitals did look defensively competent.

Trotz has so far honed a sublime mix of both. The talents of Ovechkin, Oshie, and Kuznetsov have shined bright with relatively no reins controlling them while they have the puck. They’ve limited other teams scoring chances to few and far between. The Washington Capitals are difficult to play against. Add in Braden Holtby‘s phenomenal goaltending and this is a winning formula.

So, hasta la vista, “Cardiac Caps”. You were fun while you lasted. The Washington Capitals breed of hockey has grown up and matured now. It’s ready to give any team an extremely hard time for at least 60 minutes a night. It’s ready to start winning at the highest levels of the game. It’s ready for its first Stanley Cup.

Hopefully, there’s a lot more of this stingy defense to come throughout the season and this hasn’t just been a product several teams scoring constipation. That’s likely not the case. The Washington Capitals have finally found and established their defensive dominance. If they have and the Washington Capitals offense continues to be brilliant, we the fans are all in for a treat of a season.

Next: Five Bold Predictions For 2015

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