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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

Caps try to learn to balance offense and defense

Friday, 12.17.2010 / 12:17 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals are a team in flux, and it may very well be a result of their own doing.

Critics across the hockey world were screaming after the Capitals were wiped out of the playoffs in seven games by the eighth-seeded Canadiens last spring. Everyone with a keyboard or a microphone let it be known that there was no way Washington would win in the spring unless it changed the way it played in the fall and winter.

Could it be that the Capitals are listening? Could it be that they've made a conscious decision to tweak their system to put more emphasis on keeping the opposition's chances down? Could their seven-game losing streak be associated with the unavoidable growing pains that come with that?

Opinions vary inside the Capitals' dressing room, but Wednesday night's performance against Anaheim suggests Bruce Boudreau and his assistants are at least attempting to balance out one the League's notoriously potent offensive teams.

"It was a pretty different game," Alex Ovechkin admitted.

Boudreau consistently used a shutdown line for the first time since the 2009 playoff series against Pittsburgh, and it worked about as well as he could have wanted it to. Brooks Laich, David Steckel and Matt Bradley effectively turned Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry -- arguably the NHL's hottest line -- into a non-factor in 5-on-5 situations.

The Capitals limited Anaheim to 24 shots, just 21 in regulation. They kept everything to the outside. They used their speed in transition to turn their sound defense into offensive chances. When those didn't go in for them they didn't look frustrated, didn't let it affect them on the defensive end as they did in recent losses to Toronto, Florida and the Rangers.

"I think (Wednesday) night might have been one of the best games we've played defensively all year," forward Brooks Laich said. "They were starting to get frustrated."

Yet Washington wound up on the wrong side of the box score again, burned by its only two noticeable lapses -- an unnecessary penalty that led to Joffrey Lupul's game-tying power-play goal and a miscommunication late in overtime that allowed Ryan Getzlaf to fire home the winner.

Never do you see a team happy with a loss, but the Capitals were bordering on that Wednesday night into Thursday afternoon because, they say, the bigger picture is more important than a single loss.

"I like the way things looked," Boudreau said Thursday. "We didn't give much. They didn't have a scoring chance in the first period, two in the second and five I think in the third and overtime. Seven total. … That's (how) we have to play in the playoffs. You have to win those 3-2 games and those 2-1 games. If we learn how to do it now hopefully by playoff time we'll have it down pat."

Let's not get carried away here. They've done it once. Once.

T he last-place New York Islanders put together a terrific game plan to beat the Ducks on Thursday, but until they do that 10 times in a row nobody is going to take them too seriously.

The Capitals are in a similar predicament. Doing it once only proves you can do it.

"That's where we have to realize with this transition we're going through, even though we're not winning hockey games, I think this is the type of game we have to play in order to be successful in the playoffs," defenseman Mike Green said. "The only reason why I say that is because now having played in the playoffs for three years this is what teams have done to us and this is how they've shut us down. It was an area in our game that we needed to work on and we needed to adjust, and we're consciously making this decision to adjust. All we need to do now is find balance between our offense and sticking to this game plan with our defense."

Green said that's all part of the growing pains.

The well has run dry on the Caps' offense -- they have 9 goals during this seven-game losing streak -- but no one seriously thinks that's going to continue for much longer.

"Alex Ovechkin hasn't lost the ability to be a 50-goal scorer. Mike Green hasn't lost the ability to put up 60 or 70 points," Laich said. "In two weeks that doesn't happen. We're in a bit of a rut, but the players are too good and care too much to have this continue much longer."

So what happens when they do start scoring again? Will the Capitals go back to their run-and-gun ways?

It could ruin their spring plans if they do.

"That's where the balance comes into play," Green said. "Right now I feel we have the defensive side of it down and we're consciously thinking about it, but what we have to understand is it can't take away from our offense. We have to learn how to play within our offensive talents and still be able to be responsible defensively.

"This is all new to us and it's going to take some time, so here we are," he continued. "This is a journey. It's 82 games for us to prepare ourselves for the playoffs and that's what we're doing.

"Changing this system play is going to make us a better team in the playoffs."

Even if it means dealing with the consequences of change.

"Adversity like this builds character and builds a strong team," Green added.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

I've been getting frustrated lately, and the only thing keeping me sane was the team winning and other people stepping up and scoring. Then you just kind of let it go and realize you can end the series with one shot, that frustration goes away for a brief moment, and that's what happened.

— Montreal forward Max Pacioretty after scoring the series winner in Game 4 -- his first career playoff goal -- to eliminate the Lightning and send the Canadiens into the second round