If you’ve read the last few postgame notebooks in this space following the last few Capitals victories, you already know that the team’s six blueliners have been instrumental in fueling the team’s attack of late.
“It matters a lot,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of his blueliners’ offensive contribution. ”It’s so hard to score in this league right now. Every little bit of offense you can get, you need. Obviously we’ve asked our defensemen to be involved in the play a lot and to get up the ice and be under control. For them to contribute is a big part of our game.”
Washington defensemen have tallied 25 goals in the team’s 43 games this season, and more than half (13) of those markers have come in the last dozen games. Caps defensemen were involved in all five of Washington’s goals in its 5-1 win over Toronto on Tuesday, and they’ve had a hand in 19 of the team’s 31 goals during the life of its current eight-game winning streak.
A lot of the recent blueline boom offensively has come about just because the Caps have grown more comfortable in their system play as the season has worn on.
“I think it starts with our defensive zone and neutral zone more,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “I think we’re starting to create a lot of odd-man rushes off good defensive zone [play] and good breakouts. If we have our pressure on them and the puck squirts loose, I think that we’re doing a lot better job of knowing our outs and guys are moving the puck a lot better and seeing the plays a lot better because it’s somewhat repetition. I think that’s creating a lot for us at the same time it’s stymying the other team.”
Over the course of the first 43 games of this truncated campaign, the Caps have employed a dozen different defenders. Those players have combined for 25 goals and 80 points, or an average of 1.86 points per game.
Since the 1994-95 lockout-shortened season, the Caps have had only one other season in which they’ve gotten more offense from their backline. That was in 2009-10 when 11 different Caps defensemen combined for 37 goals and 180 points, a rate of 2.20 points per game.
Washington’s strong recent run has manifested itself in an eight-game winning streak and in a streak in which the Caps have claimed at least a point in eight straight road games (7-0-1).
“I think the biggest thing is the simplicity of the game,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “Good starts were obviously a big key. I think in Winnipeg, in both games we had really good starts and it propelled us to victory. On the road especially you want to get out early, play your type of game and for whatever reasons sometimes you treat away games like they shouldn’t be; you should treat them just the same as you do for home games and get going right away. That’s the biggest thing, the simplicity of our game has been the best.”
Simplicity with a pinch of pugnacity when needed.
Chimera stood up for Caps’ center Nicklas Backstrom in Tuesday’s win over the Leafs. Toronto center Jay McClement ran Backstrom hard from behind, shoving him into the boards in front of the Leafs’ bench. Caps captain Alex Ovechkin came to Backstrom’s aid immediately, drawing a charging minor in the process.
Chimera then challenged McClement to a fight, giving the Leafs’ center a tune-up for his transgression.
Chimera spoke about the incident for the first time on Thursday.
“Backy does so much for our team offensively and defensively and he’s such a great guy off the ice,” says Chimera. “It’s hard not to stick up for a guy like that. He’s a quality example of what a hockey player should be. He plays the game the right way, plays both ends of the ice and he’s a good teammate. If you don’t stick up for guys like that, you’ve got a real problem.
“McClement is a pretty honest player; he doesn’t do that too much. He knew what happened, so I think he knew what was coming. He’d rather pick me than Erskine or someone else. I think he was probably like, ‘Sure, I’ll take you.’”
During their eight-game wining streak, the Caps have outscored foes by a combined total of 31-18, and they’ve had a pronounced 19-4 advantage in the second period of those games. Washington leads the league with 51 second-period goals, and more than a third of that total has been accrued in the last eight games.
Washington has outscored foes by a total of 52-32 over its last 14 games, a stretch in which it is 12-1-1.
Tonight’s opponent is the Ottawa Senators, a team the Caps haven’t faced since dropping a 3-2 decision here on Jan. 29. Ottawa is the stingiest defensive team in the Eastern Conference, and it is 14-3-3 on home ice this season.
Defense is a big part of Ottawa’s home-ice success. The Sens have managed just 50 goals in their 20 home games; they rank 28th in the NHL in goals scored at home. Ottawa has allowed only 33 goals in those 20 home tilts.
Ottawa is also the most miserly second-period team in the league this season; it has surrendered just 22 goals in the middle frames of its 42 games to date.
As has been the case for the last month-plus, the Caps will simply rely on their system to give them the scoring chances they’ll need to beat a strong defensive foe.
“I think it’s important for us to be patient,” says Caps right wing Eric Fehr. “We don’t have to score in the first five minutes. We’re just going to continue to do the things that we’ve been taught. Keep playing offensive hockey and keep forcing the puck. One of the best things we’ve done the last couple of games is to create turnovers. When you turn over pucks, other teams’ star players get real frustrated and it often changes the game. So I think that’s something we’re going to have to try to do again tonight.”