The system employed by Adam Oates' Washington Capitals team has been a major topic of discussion this season, and much of that discussion has been negative. Oates' system does not maximize puck possession, and therefore the Caps routinely find themselves out-shot, out-chanced and, since they reached their high-water mark in December, out-scored. Caps fans have wondered, is it the system or the team's execution of the system? Is it the coaches or the players?
While those deeper questions are likely beyond easy answers, two critical plays from Friday Night's game demonstrate what Oates' system is supposed to look like when it works. The goals by Joel Ward and Tom Wilson combine everything Oates claims to be looking for:
- Rapid exits from the defensive zone;
- Quick movement up-ice (i.e., "north") to force the defense on their heels;
- All three forwards filling their lanes and driving to the net; and
- Forwards on their strong hands so they can make plays on the forehand.
The Caps' first goal, by Joel Ward, epitomizes what Oates says he's looking for out of his players. First the video:
The puck leaves the zone quickly and after a quick give-and-go with Ward, Jason Chimera is streaking into the zone. Except for Eric Fehr filling in on right wing (it's almost as though he feels more comfortable there), the Caps forwards don't weave, attempt dekes, or make drop passes. This urgency forces the defense on their heels and prevents the Canucks forwards from backchecking effectively.
The Canucks defensemen, Jason Garrison and Ryan Stanton, try to stand up the play at the blueline, but Chimera and Ward are coming with too much speed. Ward drives the center lane hard and takes Stanton with him, freeing up space for Fehr to push toward the far post in the slot area. Again, speed is key here, as there's no way for Zack Kassian to catch Fehr on the back check. Working down the boards on his strong side, Chimera is able to protect the puck from Garrison then thread a cross-ice pass to Fehr, who's also on his strong side. Fehr's shot goes wide, but since the Caps' speed of attack forced the Canucks to scramble, their goalie Eddie Lack is out of position and Garrison can't prevent Ward from banging the loose puck into an almost-empty net.
The Caps' third goal (scored by Tom Wilson) is a similar play. The video:
The Caps have more time and space to break the puck out, as the Canucks were changing and had mostly backed into the neutral zone. Jay Beagle makes a nice curl to gain speed and create a target for Jack Hillen (who feeds a nifty little one-touch pass to him). He then makes a crisp up-ice pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has posted himself on the offensive blue line. Beagle then mirrors Ward's play on the first goal by driving hard through the center lane toward the net.
Again, the Caps move with speed vertically through the neutral zone, using only minimal lateral movement. This time, however, the Canucks' defense backs in a bit more rather than standing up at the blue line, perhaps out of belated respect for the Caps' speed through the neutral zone. Garrison, in particular, gives Evgeny Kuznetsov an enormous cushion, while Stanton backs in to cover Beagle's drive to the net while pointing for Tom Sestito to pick up Wilson, who was driving to the far post.
With the exception of Garrison, who gives Kuznetsov far too much time and space, the Canucks play this situation pretty well, but this is where Oates' obsession with playing on the strong side pays off. Kuznetsov, a lefty, can make a stronger slap-pass on his forehand, and Wilson, a righty, has a much easier time receiving and shooting the puck on his forehand side. Even though Sestito is near Wilson, he has his back to the puck, and he can't reach all the way across Wilson's big frame to tie up his stick, which gives Wilson the split second he needs to settle the puck and fire it over Lack's catching glove.
The result was a gorgeous goal and a two-goal lead for the home team (which they'd promptly give back, of course).
There remain many parts of the Caps' play that are so poor or muddled that it is difficult for outside observers to understand if the fault lies with the system or the execution of the system. These two plays, at the least, give a better understanding of what Oates is looking for when he says he wants to play a "north-south" game.