Are the Caps Caught in a Trap?

Back in November, the Caps dropped a 3-2 game to the Canadiens. It wasn't a particularly "bad" loss, somewhat indistinguishable from the other 15 times the Presidents' Trophy winner lost in regulation in 2009-10 (though rare in that it was one of the five on home ice), but in retrospect, it was certainly foreshadowing what we saw last night. In recapping that game, I wrote the following:

The Caps are a phenomenally skilled hockey club (even without perhaps their most skilled player, Alexander Semin), and when Bruce Boudreau turns his boys loose, they’re an absolute joy to watch… on most nights. Trouble is, there are certain teams and styles against which run-and-gun just won’t necessarily work. Who are these teams? Well, chances are, if a team has a guy named Jacques behind the bench, they’re one of these teams.

And Montreal’s got a guy named Jacques behind the bench.

The Caps were stifled in the neutral zone and in the middle of the ice all night, they didn’t adjust, and they didn’t win. Their two goals were both the result of hard work in the offensive zone – not mad dashes up ice – but in the end, it was too little of that and too much trying to take what just wasn’t there.

Take that with what we already knew about Montreal's ability to frustrate Alex Ovechkin on the goal-scoring front, the Caps' struggles on the penalty kill (which, in fairness, came up huge a couple of times) and the ever-present potential to run into a hot goalie in spring time and nothing that happened last night should have been all that surprising to anyone.

So now time for the former Jack Adams Trophy winner (Boudreau, not the Canadiens' Jacques Martin, who won the award as the League's best bench boss late last century) to coach 'em up. People can bemoan Alex Ovechkin's performance all they want to, but when he's the one carrying the puck through the neutral zone and turning it over upon entry into the Montreal end of the ice (if he even gets that far) rather than making better use of his teammates, there's a flaw in the orders his boss is giving (or not giving) him. When neither of the scoring lines can sustain any puck possession in the offensive zone, there's a problem with the game plan... or at least how those charges are executing them.

Point being, adjustments need to be made. (For much more on what those adjustments - and they're tweaks, more than overhauls - might look like, here's a good read). To think otherwise is to ignore a good bit of evidence, from last night and prior, as to the effectiveness of Gabby's system against neutral-zone-clogging squads. For example, Boudreau is now 8-5-4 in his NHL coaching career against Les Trapping Jacques Fabuleux (Lemaire, late of Minnesota and now behind the bench in Jersey being the other), with his team scoring a full 16.7% fewer goals per game against the current purveyors of what most closely resembles the traditional "neutral zone trap" than they have against the rest of the League.

One needs look no further than last night's game to get a sense of the difference a little good ol' fashioned dump and chase could make. Without question, the bottom two lines were the most effective last night in terms of puck possession, and that's no coincidence - those six forwards were willing to dump the puck in and fight for it in the corners and along the boards. The top two lines could learn a lot from the grinders in that respect, and it's not like those two lines can't play that game: both trios have the requisite size and the grit to get it done.

None of this is to say that the Caps can't stay the course and win this series - one has to like the Caps' chances of winning if they're putting 40-plus shots on game every night (though more shots from higher-traffic arease would increase those chances dramatically). And it's certainly not to say that the Caps' "style of play" can't win in the playoffs - this is much more about match-ups than time of year.

But if the Caps' skill forwards are unwilling to do what it takes to beat a team that plays the way Montreal does, the series could at the very least be a lot longer than anyone expected and at the very worst... well, we won't go there. The ball's in your court, Gabby. I recommend dumping it in and going to retrieve it rather than trying to push through the wall in front of you.

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