The Capitals' defense has worked diligently on their game all season long and are seeing their collective effort pay off this postseason.
Although the Capitals finished middle of the pack in goal prevention by regular season's end, they showed marked improvement down the stretch. From March 1 to their regular season finale against the New Jersey Devils April 7 - a span of 18 games - the Capitals allowed 48 goals, the fifth-lowest total in the NHL. The Capitals have carried their staunch defensive play into the postseason, which has earned them a trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
"I think we changed a lot probably with 20 games left in the season and that's helped us a lot to kind of prepare for the playoffs, and I think we've done a good job throughout the playoffs," said John Carlson, who ranks third in playoff scoring among defensemen with 11 points (3g, 8a) and is now one point shy of tying the Capitals' franchise mark for points by a defenseman in the playoffs (Kevin Hatcher, 1988: 5g, 7a; Scott Stevens, 1988: 1g, 11; Carlson, 2016: 5g, 7a).
After holding the Columbus Blue Jackets to just nine goals in four-straight wins in the first round, the Capitals' defense has once again proven their might against one of the league's highest-scoring offenses in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh ranked third in goals for per game in the regular season (3.29) and scored 28 goals in six games against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
But Washington's defense, led by goaltender Braden Holtby, was successful in stifling the Penguins potent offense and limiting them to just 2.33 goals per game through six games in the second round.
In the series-clinching Game 6 win, the Capitals held the Penguins to just one goal and 22 shots on net. The Penguins were held below 23 shots on goal just three times in the regular season, but the Capitals held them to below 23 shots twice in six games.
According to Carlson, it all starts with controlling the front of the net and trying to make things easier for Holtby, who ranks second in goals-against average (2.04) among goaltenders who played in the second round.
"I think if there's anything that has improved it's just our coverage down low and making sure that we're winning the front of the net," Carlson said. "Teams want to get there all the time and the more we can keep them away to let Holts see it, the better off we'll be."
It's been a season-long process to get to this point. Following the departures of defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk in the offseason, the Capitals relied on younger players to fill out their blue line this season. There was a slight learning curve, but the Capitals are now thriving with returnees Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, and rookie Christian Djoos and trade-deadline acquisition Michal Kempny.
"The defense has made a lot of progress," Carlson said. "Obviously we have some younger guys that have filtered in and out and new additions at the trade deadline. I just think we've grown well and really worked at what we do to try to get better and it's paid off."
Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks Feb. 19, plays the left side on a pairing with Carlson and has proven to be an ideal fit, especially during the playoffs.
"I think Kemps has done a great job for us," Carlson said. "Obviously you see how fast and how well he moves around right away, jumps off the page. But I think he's really gotten used to playing in our system. We play a lot different than Chicago and he's done an excellent job of changing his game to more our style. That has worked well for us."
"My role here is completely different and it was something new for me, but I think I try to give my best," Kempny said.
Carlson and Kempny are one of the three defensive pairings peaking at the right time for Washington. Each pairing has posted a goals for percentage of 54.55 percent or higher this postseason at five-on-five, with Djoos and Orpik leading the way at 80 percent. The Capitals' defensemen are also contributing offensively, with the blue liners combining for 27 points (5g, 22a) in the playoffs, the third-highest point total among playoff teams.
"We believe in our group and I think that's going to help," Orlov said. "We try to play for each other, with heart, and we'll see how it's going to be, but right now I think we're in good shape."