The Washington Capitals have implemented a few system tweaks to this season’s overarching game plan, and after 14 games, the changes appear to be paying early dividends. However, the new tweaks also include increased risk in certain areas of their game, which will partially rely on goaltenders stopping the breakaway and odd man rush.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan discussed the system changes with Pierre LeBrun last week in Toronto. “We’ve tried to add a couple of things system-wise that make us more aggressive and make us play at a faster pace. We’ve probably been a little inconsistent in that, but overall it’s been good.”
A good example of the new system tweaks can be derived from the Caps-Maple Leafs game this past Tuesday. In the following sequence Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson work quickly to exit the zone, with Carlson making a three-line pass, off the wall, to Ovechkin who has boxed out his opposing player. And just like that, Ovechkin has setup in the zone, and the Capitals are on the attack.
You will also notice a relatively new twist, as Ovechkin quickly works the puck across the ice, perpendicular to the slot. He first tries the trailing Oshie on the door step, but to no avail. Then John Carlson collects the puck and fires one of his two shots in the sequence, also to no avail. Ovechkin would receive the puck later in the sequence and make a pass across the ice, off of the opposite wall, to Carlson who is camped out at the right faceoff dot. The puck bounces off of the wall and right in Carlson’s lap. Carlson let’s it rip, unimpeded, for the Capitals goal.
The entire sequence, from when Backstrom collects the puck behind the Capitals goal to the ultimate goal by Carlson takes 19 seconds, and includes three shots on goal. Turn and burn. That’s fast.
John Carlson has been one of the early benefactors of the new system tweaks. Carlson is off to the best start in his 11-year NHL career, scoring wise. He has seven goals and 16 assists in 14 games played so far this season. He is currently tied for third in the league in points.
As with most things in this universe, there is a yin to the yang. The Capitals are pressuring (pinching) more, which leaves Caps defensemen vulnerable to being beat back up the ice. The changes have also led to increased chances against at times. When defensemen pinch more, you need to have a goaltender ready for additional breakaways and odd man rushes. So far the Capitals netminders have been up to the task.
Braden Holtby was asked about the new tweaks to the system, and gave his goaltenders viewpoint to Elliot Friedman in this week’s 31 Thoughts. “It’s different,” he said with a smile, “but I like the challenge.” What’s different about it? “The odd-man rushes against,” he replied. More of them? “It’s more like they come at you from different places.”
The Capitals went 9-2-3 in their first 14 games, which included nine road games, and are currently atop the metro division. That’s the ultimate metric in the end. However, the team is a rather pedestrian +8 in goal differential, which bears watching.
In the end, will the intensified pressure outweigh the break aways and odd man rushes? That will be one of the the keys to the ultimate success, or lack thereof, of the changes. Also, how will defenses prepare for these changes now that there is plenty of video on streets? Finally, can the Capitals defenseman find the perfect balance of increased pressure and protecting the defensive zone.
We will continue to monitor and eventually conduct a metrics-based review and assessment of the changes.
By Jon Sorensen