Have the Ottawa Senators drafted the blueprint for beating the Capitals?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 1: T.J. Oshie #77 of the Washington Capitals reaches for the puck against Mark Borowiecki #74 of the Ottawa Senators during an NHL hockey game on January 1, 2017 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the Capitals have been on quite roll as of late. Since New Years Eve, Washington has gone 13-1-1, leaving an impressive swath of scorched-earth and string of smoking craters in the review mirror. After what some might call a “slow start”, the Capitals find themselves in same spot they were in last season at the All-Star break, with the best record in the NHL. 

The offense has been the catalyst for the Capitals recent rampage. Washington has scored at least 4 goals in 12 of their last 15 games, and 5 or more goals in nine of those games, for a total of 69 goals or a 4.6 goals for average. And while much has been made about the Caps blazing offensive stretch, something interesting begins to reveal itself in the games where the Caps were unable to score four goals. Those games were all against the Ottawa Senators.

In the midst of their hot-streak, the Senators have managed to hold the Capitals to a total of just three goals in three games played in January. While the Capitals have been averaging 4+ goals a game against the rest of the league, including top-notch teams from the east to the west, the Senators have held the Capitals to a one goal average. The anomalies are rather easy to spot.


So, what’s the deal.  Does Ottawa have the secret sauce? NoVa Caps decided to take a deeper dive.

Ottawa has a sound defense to start with. Over the same 15 game sample, the Senators have given up just 27 goals, good for 4th best in the NHL, with an average of 1.8 goals per game. Unfortunately for the Capitals, the Senators have done better than that average against the Capitals. (1.00 goals against average). The Games against the Capitals actually bring the Senators average down below two goals a game.

Ottawa’s goaltending situation was unstable for a good portion of the early season, due to an injury to Andrew Hammond and Craig Anderson’s heartbreaking situation with his wife Nicholle being diagnosed with cancer. As a result, the Senators executed a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Novemer 2nd, bringing back-up goalie Mike Condon to Ottawa. Condon has settled that situation down as of late and has been the netminder in all three games versus the Capitals. Condon has given up just three goals on 76 shots against the Capitals, for a .962 save percentage and 1.00 goals against average.

In a general sense, Ottawa employs a 1-3-1 neutral zone trap scheme. Defensive minded teams have reverted to a “third man high” 1-3-1 system where only two offensive players will commit down low, allowing the third to join the defense and impede progress across the blue line. In other words, Ottawa attacks the offense in the neutral zone and protects the net front and slot areas in their defensive zone.

“For the most part, [the Senators] clog up the neutral zone with the 1-3-1,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “That’s nothing new. You’ve just got to manage the puck”. Something the Caps haven’t figured out in three games against the Senators this season.

img_2181Ottawa’s bench boss Guy Boucher is no stranger to Capitals fans. As you may recall, Boucher was at the helm of the Tampa Bay Lightening in 2011 when his underdog Lightning ousted the Capitals 4-0 in the second round of the playoffs. Boucher’s Lightning stymied an extremely potent Capitals offense, to advance to the finals that season.

Bucher took over an Ottawa team who’s primary weakness was in the defensive zone and play without the puck, as the team allowed among the highest shots and goals against totals in the league.

Bucher’s ability to design defensive strategies for any offense is excellent, and should not be overlooked.

The struggle with Ottawa is just that. Boucher’s defensive game-planning for the Capitals, combined with a desire to sit back and clog the middle and neutral zone, have been effective at stalling the Capitals offense, and should concern Trotz and company if the two teams collide in the playoffs. This would be a dangerous matchup for the Capitals. Furthermore, you can be assured that other teams are pulling the Caps-Senators game tapes from January and studying very closely.

Not Easily Replicated
Fortunately for the Capitals, Ottawa’s successful defense is systemic, and not easily replicated by other teams preparing for a single game against Washington. The 1-3-1 takes time to implement. However, more of the general strategic philosophy could be employed in a longer playoff series.

In addition, the Capitals ran into a very hot goaltender in Mike Condon, who’s level of play is likely to come back to earth at some point. This is less systemic and more player performance, and thus, obviously something that can’t be easily replicated by the rest of the league.

For now, the Capitals are safe against the remainder of the league, but it will be interesting to watch for the remainder of the season. Will we see more teams start attacking the Capitals in the neutral zone? Will more teams attempt to implement factions of the trap game? We will find out.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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