NEW YORK -- One of the battle cries from some members of the Washington Capitals after the two practices since a 3-1 loss in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference Semifinal series has been the need for more speed through the neutral zone.
The Capitals, particularly the team's top line with Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera, were stifled for much of the game and unable to create much offensive pressure on New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Washington's ability to create said speed does not start in the neutral zone, but in the Capitals' own end. Ovechkin's line was pinned back by a consistent wave of offensive pressure by the Rangers, and they often spent most of a given shift stuck more than 150 feet away from Lundqvist.
"When you're wheeling around in your own zone and trying to fight battles, it is a lot more tiresome than if you're having fun in the offensive zone creating chances," Washington forward Troy Brouwer said. "Anyone will tell you that. If you're spending most of your shifts in the d-zone, you're getting worn down and you won't have that ability to jump up in the play and create some speed. Guys got to make sure when there's loose pucks, we've got to be the first ones on them, recovering those pucks and getting them out and being good along the walls. That will help us create more offense in that way."
For Ovechkin's line to play less defense, they need to play better defense. A big issue for the Capitals when Ovechkin's unit was on the ice was an inability to get the puck out of danger and away from New York's aggressive forecheckers.
There was an instance where Ovechkin's group was able to break out of its own end crisply -- and the result was a perfectly executed counterattack goal for Chimera. When something like that didn't happen, the line often spent so long playing defense that there was no energy left to play offense.
If Ovechkin did carry the puck into the offensive zone, he went at it alone while Laich and Chimera headed for a change or were left far behind him.
"Actually in the first series … ideally, you want to get flying through the neutral zone, but it doesn’t always happen like that," Laich said. "Especially now when it's pretty tight -- sometimes you have to stay patient and go up the wall with the puck and chip it in and forecheck and create your opportunities. It's not going to be all night where we're flying through the neutral zone."
Brouwer is expected to replace Chimera on the top line. Ovechkin, normally a left wing, skated on the right side for a drill Monday morning. Moving him to the opposite side could mean less one-on-one battles with New York's top shutdown defenseman, Dan Girardi, but his partner Ryan McDonagh is no slouch and it would also mean Brouwer, a natural right wing, would also have to play out of position.
"I don't think there is anything in that," Brouwer said when asked if he might be on the left side for Game 2. "I know he likes to come down that left side so he has the shot available right from the beginning. Guys are reading that and they know he likes to open up and take that shot from the half wall. Maybe if we were on the other sides, and I know that we're not so it is not an issue, but maybe it would throw guys off a little bit."
Laich has been a versatile forward in Washington for the past few seasons, and Brouwer has proven to be similarly adept at playing on different lines in different situations since joining the team from Chicago. He has been deployed at times during the latter part of the regular season and this postseason on the team's checking line with Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks, but he has also moved up to the top unit on occasion.
"It shouldn't [change], but sometimes it does," Brouwer said. "When you're with skilled players like Brooks and [Ovechkin], you can be more creative as far as offense goes. If you're with [Hendricks] and [Beagle], it is more of a grind-it-out, predictable kind of line. You know exactly where the puck is going and what they will be doing with it, whereas with [Ovechkin] sometimes you don't have a clue. So sometimes there is a change in how you play.
"We have to make it so when we do get the puck out, we're not jammed right up against their d-men, because they do a good job of holding the red [line] and the blue [line]. When teams can do that, it is almost like having another defender because you can't go offsides and you've got to dump pucks. It is tough. We have to try and create more separation coming into the zone."