Friday, April 16, 2010

Once Again It's Time to Simplify

In scanning the blogosphere – at least the D.C. version – there are a lot of people saying that the Washington Capitals controlled play and dominated in the shot, hit and faceoff department in last night’s Game 1 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinal overtime loss to Montreal. No need to panic is the battle cry. Washington was the better team. Once a game gets into overtime anything can happen, and the Habs capitalized on an opportunity. That’s playoff hockey.

A closer look, however, reveals that last night’s 3-2 Montreal victory was truly a tale of two games, and the lesson that the Caps need to learn can be found easily enough by watching the opening 20 minutes on tape and committing that to memory.

For those who chose to watch Buffalo’s Game 1 victory against Boston and tuned in to the Caps-Habs contest late, it would be understandable to think Washington dominated given the Caps’ 47-38 advantage in shots, the 37-24 margin in hits and the 45-27 advantage in the faceoff circle. Breaking it down, however, Montreal outshot Washington 31-28 after the first period and captured 15 of 29 faceoffs during the third period and overtime – obviously the crucial point of the game.

The first period, however, was a different story and really illustrates how the Caps can potentially dominate the rest of this series if they want to commit to that style of play. Washington came out flying, pushing the puck to the outside and using its speed and strength to get the puck in deep and create offensive chances. The Caps finished every check, generated plenty of shots and rebound opportunities and did a pretty good job crashing the net and creating traffic. Less than a minute into the game Jason Chimera blew past Marc-Andre Bergeron along the left wing boards and drew a penalty, allowing the league’s top power-play unit an opportunity to give Washington the upper hand. And Joe Corvo’s game-tying goal was a typical playoff-style marker, a well-placed floater thrown on net through traffic. Playoff hockey at its best.

For much of the period the Caps’ forwards seemed either too fast, too strong or both for the Habs’ defensive corps. It looked to be only a matter of time before Washington’s high-powered attack would heat up and give the Caps the lead. That’s when Jaroslav Halak stole the game. Certainly he was very strong throughout the evening, but he allowed the Canadiens to weather that storm and left Washington frustrated and somewhat drained heading into the second period.

On the bad side for the Caps in that opening 20 minutes was a silly penalty taken by Nick Backstrom that came with Washington holding a decided advantage in play and allowed Mike Cammalleri to net his first goal since January to give the Habs some hope. While Washington finished the season with the NHL’s top power play, connecting on better than 25 percent of its opportunities, the Canadiens are extremely dangerous with the man advantage as well, ranking No. 2 in the league and converting better than 21 percent of the time. The Caps are a decent penalty-killing team at home, but ranked near the bottom of the league overall, so staying out of the box is a key to their success.

And speaking of the power play, that was the other disappointing area for the Caps in the opening stanza. They went 0-for-2 in the first 20 minutes and finished the night 0-for-4, making them 1-for-15 with the extra man over their last five home contests.

It didn’t take long to see that the Caps were out of sync on the power play. Good shots were passed up. Long-range shots and low-percentage, pressured shots from the outside were attempted. Passes to players open for one-timers in scoring areas wound up in their skates or arrived bouncing or fluttering. Something wasn’t clicking. Perhaps they were too cute or trying to be too perfect and ended up trying to force things with the penalty clock winding down. No matter, the power play is something that has carried this team and must continue to do so. If the Caps aren’t scoring on the power play, Montreal’s potent extra-man attack combined with Washington’s less-than-stellar penalty killing suddenly tilt the balance slightly back in the Habs’ direction going forward.

“When you outshoot a team 19-7 in the first period, you know it’s not going to end up 57-21,” said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau. “I was a little worried after the first period. We had a 1-1 tie, but I think we outplayed them them pretty badly in the first, and usually when you do that and you don’t get a 3-0 or 3-1 lead, things can start to change. They are going to go into their dressing room and get hell from the coach or he’s going to say that now it’s our turn and at some point something’s going to happen to turn the game the other way. “

Once the second period started you could sense there was a change in approach from the Caps. Montreal continued to clog the ice in all three zones, and Washington started going for the home run – the long breakout pass and the stretch pass to the far blue line. Instead of the Caps using their speed advantage to the outside, getting the puck in deep, cycling, moving the puck and going to the net, they started playing a lot of east-west hockey with dipsy-dos at the blue line and fancy passes that led to countless offsides and more long-range, blockable shots. And for some reason, the Caps’ defense, which had been rock-solid in the first period, began to play hot potato with the puck, rushing and forcing passes and clears. They simply were not making the simple play.

When the Caps did get the puck in deep it seemed like one player – Mike Knuble, for instance – would go into the corner on his own and dig for the puck while his linemates kind of floated around in the slot area waiting for him to break free and make a pass. That instead of outnumbering the Canadiens in the corner and coming out with control to set up a situation where the Habs’ forwards would have to leave their assignment to help out in front of the net. Once you get the defense rotating and scrambling, the offense can originate from the point through either a clear shot to the goal or a fake shot that draws another defensive player out of position and leaves an offensive player open in even better scoring position.

All of that played right into the Canadiens’ hands. Montreal’s defensemen, Andrei Markov in particular, have no issue with giving up their bodies to protect the net. The Habs played back off of Washington’s forwards and pressured the pointmen, letting the forced shots from the blue line either carom off their bodies or scoot harmlessly past the net. Then, when Washington did get some open looks at the goal in the third period and overtime, the Caps rushed their shots and usually fired high or wide.

Ultimately, in overtime the Caps defensemen seemed extremely tentative moving the puck out of their own end and misread a couple of key loose-puck situations in neutral ice. One misread by Jeff Schultz led to a near-breakaway for Brian Gionta. The other by Shaone Morrisonn gave Tomas Plekanec the space he needed to fire a pinpoint bullet past Jose Theodore, whose outstanding 35-save performance was overshadowed by Halak’s brilliant 45-stop effort.

“We had a lot of shots on goal,” Boudreau said, “but I don’t think that we had a lot of great, quality chances. And when we did get quality chances we shot wide or didn’t get a shot off at all. We had a 2-on-1 late in the third and a 3-on-1 in overtime and didn’t get a shot of. I thought Halak played good, but he didn’t do anything we didn’t think he could do.”

So, let’s go back to the video. Working on the theory that positive reinforcement builds confidence this time of year, the Caps only need to watch the opening 20 minutes and lock in on the following: use speed to push the puck to the outside and then hammer the Canadiens’ physically in their own end, outnumber the Habs’ in the corners and then make the simple pass to move the puck quickly, immediately go to the net once the pass is made to the open man, take the open shot when it’s there and crash the net, limit the hot goaltender’s impact by getting pucks to the net and creating rebounds, make the easy and available pass in the defensive end and neutral zone and stay out of the box.

“I think we can play harder all the way around – from the top to the bottom – and that will reflect in the score, “ said Washington winger Mike Knuble, who led the first-period charge with six shots on goal. “I think maybe we need to bear down a little more around the net. This time of year you’re not pulling up trying to find people. If you get a little break, you get some speed and you get the puck to the net and somebody’s got to go in for the rebound.”

In other words, it’s time to simplify. The question is whether the Caps will get that message a game earlier than they did a year ago or will Red Nation be sent into panic mode yet again?

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