Last night the Washington Capitals finished off their season series against the Edmonton Oilers, completing the two-game sweep with a 4-1 victory at Rexall Place. As was the case the last time these teams met, the game was closer than the score, and if not for strong goaltending early and some opportunistic offense, the Caps could have found themselves trailing (or at least tied) going into the third period.
Fortunately for the Caps, the game was already in their favor by a 2-0 score when the third period opened, and a dominant shift from the top line that ended with Nicklas Backstrom putting the puck into an open net behind Devan Dubnyk provided all the insurance Braden Holtby would need (but not all he would get). Let's take a look at that shift:
The play starts with Alex Ovechkin picking up a loose puck near his defensive blueline and racing up the ice towards the offensive zone. Once he gains the zone, Ovechkin fires a shot wide of Dubnyk's net. The rebound rifles off the end-boards and Backstrom picks up the rebound near the half-wall, where he then tries to slide the puck to Marcus Johansson in the slot. The pass isn't quite on target, but Johansson tracks down the loose puck, curls up the boards, and dishes to Mike Green.
We've talked about Green's propensity for high-risk/high-reward plays, but in this instance Green makes the simple play and snaps a quick, low shot on net. Backstrom picks up the rebound in the corner, and then schools Ryan Nugent-Hopkins below the goal line, ultimately bringing the puck around the net on the far side and setting up Ovechkin for a point-blank shot on Dubnyk. Although Dubnyk made the save, Ovechkin beats Ladislav Smid to the loose puck (aided by a stumble from Nugent-Hopkins), curls up to the top of the circle, and slams on the breaks, opening a cross-ice passing lane to Johansson:
One thing you'll notice is that when Ovechkin collects the rebound, the Oilers' defense is overloaded to the strong side, meaning three Oilers defenders (Nugent-Hopkins, Smid, and Jeff Petry) are all on the same half of the ice as the puck. Petry is marking Backstrom in front of the net, but when Ovechkin gets the cross-ice pass to Johansson, the two defenders down low have to slide: Petry moves to cover Johansson, and Nugent-Hopkins moves to cover Backstrom, still on top of the crease. Unfortunately for Nugent-Hopkins, because of the cross-ice movement, Backstrom had inside position, and the tutelage continued. Petry can't get out to Johansson quickly enough, nor seal off the passing lane. Once the puck gets through Petry, Nugent-Hopkins' only defense was to try to stick-check Backstrom... but it clearly didn't work, and Nugent-Hopkins ended up sliding face-first through his own crease instead. Backstrom slammed the puck home, and the game was effectively over.
The Caps' top line hasn't been known for cycling, but they have been able to play for extended shifts below the top of the circles more often this season, and it has resulted in goals for the Caps. This still may not be an extended traditional cycle (partly because Backstrom's goal preempted the "extended" part of the statement), but the Caps were able to reverse the puck below the faceoff dots twice in the shift, with Backstrom demonstrating some textbook puck protection below the goal line in a couple of instances.
When this line establishes offensive zone possession and commits to playing with the puck below the faceoff dots, they're really hard to defend. They've all got great skill, and Ovechkin and Backstrom are incredibly strong and difficult to handle physically. On paper, this line is built to cycle... can they keep it up?
[Stick tap to Killer_Carlson for the video.]