For a large chunk of the beginning of this regular season, the defensive pairings have been Matt Niskanen with Karl Alzner, John Carlson with Dmitry Orlov, and Brooks Orpik with either Nate Schmidt or Taylor Chorney. The defensive pairings were great in the Caps’ defensive zone, but the offensive production from the Washington blue-liners was among the lowest in the league.
A few games ago, the coaching staff changed up the lines so that John Carlson and Matt Niskanen were swapped around, and things began to get interesting in the offensive zone. Despite Alzner and Niskanen being great buddies off of the ice, the change in scenery for these two players and their linemates has been looking to be a great pace changer for the blue line so far.
In the last five games, the Caps’ defense has combined for 14 points, including John Carlson’s first goal of the season and Matt Niskanen’s second ever multi-goal game. For reference, the defensemen combined for only three points in the first 25 games of this regular season.
Part of the reason the defense may be generating more offensively can be seen in the mindset change that occurred when the defensive pairings were switched up. All of a sudden, the defense was more willing to activate offensively, seeming more comfortable with the idea that a winger or centerman could come back to cover the vacant point. Even in last night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Brooks Orpik was seen crashing the net at one point, something that is incredibly uncharacteristic for the veteran defenseman. Another big shift that has occurred is the idea that the defense can break the puck out of their own zone themselves instead of relying on a cross-ice breakout pass or a pass up the boards to a vulnerable forward in the neutral zone. This has resulted in less turnovers as of late and is the reason the Caps have been having an easier time setting up the play in the offensive zone. Even Nate Schmidt has been carrying the puck in lately, generating some shots and scoring opportunities.
What this boils down to is a versatility in the way the Caps can generate offense. For instance, the powerplay, which had been cold for the entirety of November and even the beginning of December, has been clicking lately. In the past four games, the Caps have gotten a total of six powerplay goals. The Caps seem less concerned about looking for that perfect pass, or fully relying on Ovechkin to bury the puck in the net, and more willing to shoot the puck and try to score a chippy goal off of a rebound, and that all begins with the defense. Both John Carlson and Matt Niskanen have been shooting the puck from the point more often while on the man advantage, and the Caps have been getting better opportunities to redirect the puck or score off of a lucky deflection because of it. Even when they’re not on the powerplay, the Caps have been getting good opportunities to score, like the game-tying goal that sent last night’s game into overtime.
Tonight, the Capitals will take on the Montreal Canadiens at home, and will try to extend their winning streak to seven games. Montreal, who is one point ahead of the Caps in the standings, will be starting goaltender Carey Price after he got pulled last night for the first time in over two and a half years. In order to beat this 2015 Vezina Trophy winner, the Caps defense will have to continue to help out offensively, taking quality shots from the point and relying on the Capitals offense to get some redirects and rebounds in front of Price.
By Justin Green