A team that has been defined by its offensive prowess since Bruce Boudreau became the coach forgot to play offense. The Capitals are in the midst of an identity shift – they are focused on becoming a better defensive team – and the first period against Florida showed Washington is still working on finding the right balance.
The process has produced immediate results, but it hasn't been a transition without some hiccups along the way. During the first intermission against the Panthers, Boudreau reminded his players they still needed to forecheck and create offensive chances and they did enough to claim a 3-2 victory after a pretty ugly first 20 minutes.
"We just weren't doing it," Boudreau said. "We went over all of that on video [Monday]. You're not going to score by dumping the puck in and not going after it. I don't think offensive hockey has a lot to do with playing smart defensively. You should be able to do both. We started picking it up in the second and then in the third I thought we were a little better and consequently we got three goals."
Added forward Eric Fehr: "We're still trying to learn everything about this new system, but it is important for us to remember that we have to work. As long as we're working hard on the forecheck and getting back, we can still try to score goals and play defense at the same time."
Ten games ago Boudreau decided to build a checking line to match against Anaheim's terrific trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. The Capitals were stuck in a losing streak and it was one of the few times Boudreau committed to such a defensive tactic.
The result was an overtime loss but the defensive work was sound as Anaheim's top trio didn't score until Getzlaf did so in the extra session. After the losing streak reached eight games, Boudreau decided it was time for an even more radical change.
Boudreau, who came into the NHL as a guy known for preaching aggressive, attacking hockey, decided it was time for his troops to pull back a bit. The shift was a bit shocking. Are the Capitals, a beacon of offensive might the past three-plus seasons, really willing to deploy a … neutral zone trap?
"Sure, call it a trap, but who really cares?" center David Steckel said. "The only thing is we're not attacking as much in the neutral zone. Bottom line – that sums it all up. We're playing a 1-2-2 instead of a 1-3-1 and it is allowing us to not hold one person responsible for a mistake. Rather than giving up a scoring chance, you still have to get through two more guys."
Added defenseman Tom Poti: "We need to learn to be able to sit back and not always go, go, go forward. Sometimes you have to stay back to be successful and it is something we're learning. You can't just go offense all the time – we tried that and we weren't successful."
In the eight games since Boudreau decided it was time to change the system, the Capitals have yet to lose in regulation. They have rebounded from an eight-game losing streak with a 6-0-2 run as back-to-back games in the state of Florida beckon.
The work at the defensive end has been impressive – 11 goals against in eight games and only 16 in the past 10 dating back to the Anaheim contest.
"I think if there is any doubt I think the numbers have spoken for themselves in the goals against department," forward Mike Knuble said. "I think we've become much stingier and much harder to play against through the neutral zone. We're a team that everyone thinks is all offense, and we're going to end up having 50 games to prove we're a changed team."
Part of the side effects from the more defensive structure to this point appears to be less offense, but the Capitals were already struggling to score before the philosophy shift – in fact that was what spurred Boudreau to try the change.
A big reason for the troubles on offense has been the scuffling power play. In each of the past two seasons the Capitals have finished first or second in the NHL with a power-play proficiency of better than 25 percent.
"You're not going to score by dumping the puck in and not going after it. I don't think offensive hockey has a lot to do with playing smart defensively. You should be able to do both."
-- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
Several of the Capitals' top stars aren't scoring at previous rates, but Knuble says the new system is not to blame.
"I don't buy that because we haven't changed anything from the red line forward," Knuble said. "Maybe some more aggressive forechecking causes turnovers and that leads to a few more points but it isn't anything so drastic that you're going to notice in your stats. You're talking maybe fix, six per year and maybe 10 if you're lucky. That's not like a big deal for season.
"Bruce hasn't changed anything to where if we have a rush and we have numbers he isn’t saying to dump it in and play conservative. Nor is he telling us to not be as offensive. More responsible at times – sure, but I don't think he's put the handcuffs on any offensive player. If we had scored 8-10 more on the power play at this point then Alex [Ovechkin] picks up a couple and Nicky [Backstrom] picks up a couple and there’s nothing to talk about really. I think a power play can come and go too, but it has got to come back because we have the right guys for it."
For now the Capitals will continue to try and blend their ability to produce offense with their new, more responsible system. There could be more growing pains, but if the team’s top players continue to embrace the changes it could make the remolded Capitals a scary opponent once the postseason arrives.
"It's not a great comparison but Tiger Woods came out [of college] on fire and won all these tournaments in the PGA but then all of a sudden he decided to change his swing," Poti said. "He took like a whole year where he didn't really win much or do much in the world of golf and he says he's working on his swing to make him a better player, a more complete player.
"You can kind of compare that to us. We're kind of working on our game so we can be a more complete team – not just an offensive team that plays defense once in a while. We're building ourselves for the playoffs where the last couple years we were maybe just a good team for the playoffs and not a great team."