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Grinding It Out

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Folks everywhere are fawning over the Caps’ tighter defensive style of play, and rightfully so. But the team has undergone a quieter but nearly as effective makeover up front.

In the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 28, the Caps were putting out a lineup that included centers Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson and either Boyd Gordon or David Steckel. Backstrom was trying to play with a thumb injury and Perreault and Johansson are both rookies.

With the Feb. 26 addition of winger Marco Sturm came speed and experience. The Feb. 28 addition of center Jason Arnott brought size, leadership (another story altogether) and experience.

By the time Backstrom came back healthy after a five-game absence, the Caps could roll out lines that featured Backstrom, Arnott, Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon up the middle. Suddenly, the Caps were stronger, bigger, more experienced and more dangerous at the center ice position.

“I think our forwards are as big as anybody’s in the league and on top of that, they can skate,” observes Laich. “As a defenseman, you don’t like going back for the puck. You’ve got Jason Arnott coming in, you’ve got Matt Hendricks, Matt Bradley, myself, Alex Semin, [Alex Ovechkin], guys just keep coming at you. It wears on you eventually, through a game."

While Perreault was reassigned to AHL Hershey and Steckel was sent to New Jersey as part of the payment for Arnott, Johansson is still an integral part of the lineup. The youngest and smallest Caps forward at 20 years of age and 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds, Johansson’s speed and creativity are useful whether he is playing center or wing.

Big wingers Ovechkin and Mike Knuble are likely to flank Backstrom for Wednesday’s playoff opener against the Rangers while Sturm and the dangerous Semin skate alongside Arnott. Laich and/or Johansson will man the middle of the third line with the other playing wing along with Jason Chimera.

Washington’s fourth line of Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley is a rugged trio that likes to throw its weight around and is capable of playing 10-12 minutes a night. They get in on the forecheck and make life difficult for opposing defensemen.

“We want to keep the puck down low,” says Gordon. “Our forwards for the most part are big, strong guys. The more we keep the puck down there, the better off we are. Our [defensive] zone has improved light years from last year. That’s a big thing for us, especially when it’s one-goal games that we’re winning. It’s definitely important and something we’ve got to continue to focus on.”

Rangers defenseman Bryan McCabe has played 1,135 NHL games. That accounts for more than half of the total of New York’s likely top six blueliners. McCabe’s 51 playoff games (none since 2004) also accounts for more than half of the total of 95 playoff games from the Rangers top six blueliners.

Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh and Hal Gilroy will be making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts this spring. It’s up to Washington’s group of big, strong and swift forwards to get pucks in deep and make life worse than a night in jail for them.

“That’s the way we’ve been playing lately,” notes Chimera. “You just grind down in their zone and that’s the way we have to play, that’s playoff hockey. We’re such a big club up front, especially with Arnott and Sturm, who plays bigger than he is down low. When you get it low like that and you grind teams down, it wears them out, wears them down. You have defensemen looking over their shoulder for it. It’s a great way to play.

“We’ve got that size. We’ve got to get the pucks deep and wear teams down. That’s where we’ve got to be effective. What guys are preaching in here is to get the puck deep all the time and it’s been working for us. We’ve been winning those close games and when you make teams go all the way back to get it every time, in those close games it matters so much. From the blueline to their goal line, it matters so much, not turning the puck over. We’ve been doing a good job of wearing teams down. We’ve just got to keep on with that mindset.”

Lots of teams have a few lines like that, and the Rangers themselves have a sizeable group of forwards and are likely to try to employ a similar game plan themselves. But Washington has four lines that boast big bodies and can play that grinding style of game shift after shift.

“There’s much to be said for youth and speed,” admits Knuble, “but sometimes you’ve got to have big bodies down there to do the grinding and grind out games at this time of year and over the course of a [playoff] series grind those games out. Just be a lot of weight and get in the way and be heavy on guys.

“We do, and I think after you play here for a while you don’t even realize it. We are pretty big, and if you crunch the numbers we might be the biggest team in the league. We’re not known as being overly physical in that respect for being as big as we are, but we’re realizing that we can grind and control pucks down low and work our offense that way instead of being a team that’s known for scoring on the rush.”

A natural corollary to wearing defensemen down in their own end is to get those forwards’ big bodies in front of New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist. One of the best in the business for the last half-dozen seasons, Lundqvist will stop most of what he sees. The idea is to keep him from seeing shots from the outside and to be double-parked in the fire lane for rebounds.

“You’re not going to score off the rush and pretty tic-tac-toe plays [in the playoffs],” says Knuble. “That’s something you try and hammer home to guys. If you watch the playoff games, they’re ugly. You’re kicking them in around the crease, guys are diving for the puck and trying to jam it in. You’ll have the odd tic-tac-toe play, but the way you’re going to win games is just who’s going to be grittier around the net, who’s going to get loose pucks around the net.”

When Washington was in the midst of its nine-game winning streak in the first half of March, strong and sustained play in the attack zone was a staple of its game plan. If the Caps are able to keep the Rangers hemmed into their own end for long periods, they’ll also increase the likelihood of drawing some penalties and putting the resurgent Washington power play on the ice.

“I think a strength of our team has always been the size of our forwards, and their ability to skate,” says Laich. “And I think we’re tough to play against down low in the offensive zone when we move our feet. I think that is the key.

“Have a third guy high, but be changing, be interactive. Move the puck; short passes, not saucer passes through seams and to the other side of the ice. Support each other; quick, tight turns and then go to the net and go to the net with a vengeance. Our D are going to get shots through and put pucks behind the net, so a lot of the emphasis is going to be on our forwards.”

The emphasis of the New York defense is going to have to be on Washington’s forwards, too.

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