Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
Yesterday, the Washington Capitals took on the Colorado Avalanche in their second home game of the regular season. In an exciting game for Caps fans, Washington outplayed, outshot, and outscored the Avalanche, winning 3-0 and giving the team the first shutout this season of any team in the NHL. The Capitals now have a 2-0-1 record, going their first three games without a regulation loss. The latter half of last season had many Caps fans worried because the team wasn’t able to put together a full 60 minute game, having to play catch-up against whoever they were facing. It seemed like the Caps needed an adjustment period in each game to get used to the opposition, and when they finally were able to figure out the opposing team, they would put together a more complete game. The team took this style of play into the post season, where they met a familiar end.
But what is different this year? The team looks like they’re playing more consistently, at least so far. And before you statisticians out there get angry at me for making these assumptions off of the small sample size of three games, I’ll put a disclaimer in: The season is still young, and the teams are still adjusting, so this might just be an anomaly, but the utilization of depth is a huge key to the consistency so far.
It’s no secret that teams figured out how the Caps generated goals last season. The Capitals relied heavily on the top two lines for most of their goals, and they had depth lines that could grind but wouldn’t get too much done, especially near the end of the season. Even in the first game against the Penguins this season, the top two lines had about 20 minutes each, the third line had about 16 minutes, and the third line barely hit the ice at all with about 7 minutes of ice-time. The Pittsburgh defense had shut down the top line completely, but the newly restructured “Swedish” second line was able to get two points. Ultimately, the Caps lost in a shootout.
We’ve seen something different in the past two games, however. Against the Islanders, no single forward got over 20 minutes of ice-time. In fact, Ovechkin was the offensive ice-time leader with 19:07 played. So where did that ice-time go? It was relatively evenly distributed among the other lines. The first and second line had nearly identical playing times again, but the third line and fourth line saw their roles increase. Aside from Zach Sanford who got 10:35 of playtime, the third line got about 16 minutes and the fourth line had about 12 minutes on the ice. That means that between the top line and the bottom line, there was only about a six-minute differential in total ice-time. In last night’s game, we saw a nearly identical strategy, with no forward exceeding 19 minutes or getting less than 10 minutes.
So what does this mean? The depth is clicking.
The third line may still be shuffled around, with Zach Sanford and Brett Connolly trading the winger position, but other than that the third and fourth lines have been firing on all cylinders. Lars Eller and Justin Williams have been working well as a unit, despite their other winger changing, and the Beagle-Wilson-Winnik line is generating an incredible amount of offense for a fourth line. Because the coaching staff can now trust the depth lines and rely on the bottom six more, we can cycle our lines better. Less double shifts mean more rest for the top six, who can be better utilized for key situations such as the powerplay. More importantly, what having depth point generation means is that other teams won’t be able to figure out the Caps offense as easily, and even if they do, they won’t necessarily have the reserves to keep up with us. Even if the first and second line are figured out, we will still have a fully capable third and fourth line, with no opposition left in reserve to “take care of” it.
I know that the season is still young, and the depth skill might be anomalous, and that everything could change in a few games, but this early chemistry for our bottom six is a very promising attribute that you don’t see in many other teams. The earlier the Caps figure out how to keep the opposition on their toes, the better it will be for our guys, especially the top six who won’t feel the entire weight of the team on their shoulders anymore.
By Justin Green