FanPost

Gameplan: Intense Patience

Ducks-cup_medium

The Ducks' brutal path to glory is unavailable to the Caps, who will have to carve their own road if they hope to achieve their goal.

 

The New York Rangers tried, for the first two games of their 2011 first round series, to outplay the Washington Capitals.  The result for the Rangers was an overtime loss and a 2-0 shutout.  Although the margins of victory were thin, it became clear that the Rangers simply lack the depth of talent that the Caps possess. 

As the games shifted to New York for Games 3 and 4, John Tortorella made an important determination: playing skill hockey wasn't going to work.  Since the Rangers couldn't elevate their play to the Caps' level, they would need to lower the Caps' level of play down to their own.  And that meant shifting the roles and focus of his players.  The table that follows the jump illustrates the adjustments Tortorella made by showing who the TOI winners and losers have been for both teams in games 3 and 4 versus games 1 and 2.

Player

Pts

1&2

3&4

Δ

 

Player

Pts

1&2

3&4

Δ

Ruslan Fedotenko

25

18:40

24:44

06:05

Mike Green

24

21:29

28:15

06:46

Brandon Dubinsky

54

23:39

29:31

05:51

Brooks Laich

48

20:54

26:11

05:17

Brian Boyle

35

19:52

24:11

04:20

John Carlson

37

23:22

26:17

02:55

Michael Sauer

15

21:48

25:54

04:06

Marco Sturm

16

16:03

18:30

02:26

Ryan McDonagh

9

21:55

25:26

03:32

Alexander Semin

54

19:03

21:13

02:11

Sean Avery

24

10:22

13:13

02:51

Marcus Johansson

27

17:58

19:57

01:59

Dan Girardi

31

28:15

30:52

02:37

Jason Arnott

31

16:44

18:38

01:55

Brandon Prust

29

16:13

18:43

02:31

Karl Alzner

12

22:29

24:16

01:47

Artem Anisimov

44

14:40

16:56

02:17

Jason Chimera

26

13:14

14:57

01:43

Derek Stepan

45

20:14

22:00

01:45

Alex Ovechkin

85

23:18

24:49

01:31

Marc Staal

29

28:36

30:02

01:27

Nicklas Backstrom

65

24:17

25:45

01:28

Vinny Prospal

23

20:18

21:09

00:51

Boyd Gordon

9

14:07

15:22

01:16

Chris Drury

5

11:24

11:43

00:18

John Erskine

11

15:13

16:08

00:55

Marian Gaborik

48

24:47

24:49

00:02

Scott Hannan

11

25:07

25:42

00:36

Matt Gilroy

11

16:17

15:49

-00:28

Matt Hendricks

25

09:50

10:21

00:30

Bryan McCabe

28

19:39

19:05

-00:35

Jeff Schultz

10

24:01

24:15

00:14

Erik Christensen

27

14:36

10:59

-03:37

Matt Bradley

11

11:31

09:18

-02:13

Wojtek Wolski

35

12:41

08:48

-03:53

Mike Knuble

40

23:20

17:27

-05:53

 Pts is regular season points.  1&2 is average TOI in games 1 and 2; 3&4 is average TOI in games 3 and 4.  Δ is the difference between average TOI in games games 3 and 4 versus games 1 and 2.  Since games 1 and 2 combined for 2:18:24 of gametime (counting overtime), and games 3 and 4 combined for 2:32:36 - a difference of 14:12 - you'd expect each player to have played about 2:00 of additional average TOI in games 3 and 4.  Anyone with less than 2:00 of Δ has effectively played less relative to everyone else in games 3 and 4 than in games 1 and 2.  Zuccarello and Fehr, who have played 1 game apiece, were left off the chart because there's nothing to compare. 

 

In Tortorella's new approach, the TOI "losers" for the Rangers have been the pure skill guys:  Gaborik, Christensen, Prospal, McCabe, and especially Wolski.  The TOI "winners" have been second defensive pair Sauer and McDonagh (who have earned the trust of Tortorella) and the sandpaper forwards, Boyle, Dubinsky, Avery (who was scratched from game 1), Fedotenko, and Prust.  The Rangers' style of play has followed this shift in personnel.  They're chirping.  They're running the goalie at every opportunity.  They're pushing and shoving after every whistle.  They're whining to the refs about every perceived sleight from the Caps.  They're doing all of the little things they know how to get under the Caps' skin.

As a Caps fan looking at this chart, it comes as no surprise to see that Boyle has taken so much extra TOI in the two games at MSG.  The Δ for Prust and Avery almost seems a little low.  Those three guys, along with Fedotenko and Dubinsky, seem to always be out on the ice stirring things up.  It's infuriating.  Because all of those forwards understand their role.  Their purpose is to knock the Caps off their game as much (or even more) than it is to try to score goals and play the puck.  And it has been working.  The Caps have been distracted by the Rangers' antics.  The Caps have been pushing and shoving after the whistle.  The Caps have been taking bad penalties.  Most importantly, the Caps have experienced defensive lapses and given up bad goals.

There is nothing new about the Rangers' strategy in games 3 and 4.  Coaches have been instructing their team to take a chippy approach to the playoffs as long as the NHL has existed.  They do it because it increases the odds that the less skilled team will win the series.  They do it because it can work. 

Seen from the right angle, perfect chippiness is beautiful.  It's part of what makes hockey hockey.  The Rangers' strategy requires impeccable judgment in skirting - and when you can get away with it, crossing - the line between physical play and a penalty.  I actually appreciate what Boyle, Prust, Avery, Dubinsky, and Fedotenko are doing. Riding that edge of legality is a form of art in and of itself - just as difficult as an Ovechkin deke, a Backstrom pass, or a Semin wrist shot out of the blue. 

Of course, we're not dispassionate observers here.  And neither are the Caps.  What the Rangers are doing is frustrating as hell to everyone invested in the Caps' success - us, the players, the coaches.  But unlike us, the players and coaches have some ability to affect what happens on the ice.  They can put a stop to it.  Tomorrow night.

If there is nothing new about the Rangers' strategy, there is also nothing new about how you beat a team that is focused more on getting under your skin than getting the puck in the net.  Recognizing what is happening is the critical first step.  The Caps need to come to the realization that (1) this is a conscious strategy by the Rangers, and (2) the Caps cannot compete with the Rangers when it comes to chippiness.  Players like Avery, Boyle, and Prust have made careers out of playing this way.  They have much more practice at it than the Caps.  They know intimately where "the line" is.  None of the Caps have experience that can compare.  They haven't "practiced" playing that way nearly as much or as long.

The second step is acceptance.  Things you don't like are going to happen.  Neuvirth is going to get run.  Everyone is going to get hit after the whistle.  They will hear things they don't like.  The refs will seem to be against them at every turn.  This is the Caps' lot in life, whether they like it or not.  They have a choice in how they respond.  But they have no choice regarding whether it happens. 

But with acceptance comes opportunity.  At the end of the night, the only thing that matters is the score.  Every extra shift, every extra minute, that Avery, Prust and Boyle play while Wolski, Christiansen and Gaborik sit is a missed opportunity for the Rangers to score a goal.  Avery, Prust and Boyle certainly aren't zeroes offensively, but they lack the skill to break down a solid defense the way the Rangers' more talented forwards can.  And with Avery, Prust and Boyle focusing more on the Caps than on the puck, their offensive abilities are even further limited.  It stands to reason that every minute that the Rangers don't score a goal is a minute in which the Caps will least break even, and perhaps pull ahead.  More importantly, what Avery, Prust, and Boyle are going to do is as predictable as an Ovechkin one-on-one rush down the left side.  And every time your opponent is predictable, there is an opportunity to exploit their play.  The key is to keep emotions in check and to exercise an intense patience.  The opportunities will come, if only the Caps are disciplined enough to let them. 

The third step to beating a chippy hockey team is to impose your own gameplan.  And the Caps' gameplan ought to have three fundamental tenets (in order of importance):

  • Absorb - The Caps cannot react to chippiness - at least not at the moment it happens. This may seem counter-intuitive and contrary to the team toughness approach usually espoused on this site, but there is a very simple logic to it: It's obvious that the Rangers want the Caps to retaliate. Any time you're doing exactly what the opposition wants, you're playing into their hands.
    The Rangers know that the referees will punish retaliation much more consistently than they punish original infractions, especially in the playoffs. The Caps simply have to take it, and hope the referees open their eyes.  Because the only alternative is for the Caps to take penalties.  And as Game 3 showed, they cannot afford to do that.
  • Defend - Team defense is critical. Since the Rangers are putting out less talented players and are not focusing on offense, it should be easier to play stifling defense, as long as the Caps do not become distracted from that mission.
    But it is also incumbent on every player (including the goalie) to defend himself. Since the Rangers are targeting them, each player must take steps not to put himself in a vulnerable position - even if it means backing off on offense. They can't take any risks with either the puck or with their own health.  If this means the Caps' offense suffers, then so be it.  The Rangers are giving up scoring opportunities by adopting their strategy, and the Caps can afford to give up scoring opportunities as well.
  • Punish - What the Rangers are trying to do is very, very hard. They cannot and will not be perfect. And the Caps must punish every error. They can physically punish the Rangers with hard, clean hits any time a Rangers player puts himself in a vulnerable position. And the Caps should be manufacturing heavy hits, especially against the defensemen (for example, by dumping the puck in and hammering the defenseman who plays it). They can punish the Rangers for crossing the line and being called for a penalty by executing on the power play. And they can punish any defensive lapse with an odd-man rush.
    Counter-punching like this is inherently reactive.  The key is patience and discipline. The Caps should not force anything or fall into cute play, because that puts the Caps in a vulnerable position. They need to exercise the intense patience that comes with the confidence that their opportunities will come.

If some of us have expressed frustration with the Caps' coaches, it is only because so little of this should be anything new to them.  The Rangers' strategy is a common and well known approach that everyone in the Caps' organization will have seen in juniors, in the minors, and in previous NHL playoff series.

It takes two teams to knock the Caps off their game: their opponents and themselves.  If the Caps focus only on what they can control, then they can rise above the crap and take command of the game.  The 2007 Ducks could have matched the Rangers blow for blow and then some.  The Caps cannot, and never will.  They're not that kind of team.  But if they focus on protecting themselves, on defending their zone, on counterpunching and taking advantage of the opportunities that arise, and above all on never retaliating, then they can come through the other side.  "Don't get mad -- get even" should be their mantra.  Because the best revenge is simply to send the Rangers home for the summer.

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

Join Japers' Rink

You must be a member of Japers' Rink to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Japers' Rink. You should read them.

Join Japers' Rink

You must be a member of Japers' Rink to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Japers' Rink. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9355_tracker