The ability to cycle the puck is one hockey's criminally underrated and under-appreciated skills. It's not particularly flashy and it doesn't make highlight reels, but it sure is difficult to pull off. You need players who are smart, unselfish, positionally sound, patient, and willing to dig pucks out of the corners, win board battles, and go hard to the net, and you need them all the do it at the same time. Easier said than done.
But as difficult as the cycle is to pull off, it's even more effective. Obviously a team can't score when they can't get possession of the puck, but more importantly being forced to constantly defend against the cycle is, frankly, both mentally and physically exhausting. It forces the goaltender to stay alert and on the ready, and to move back and forth to take away angles, even when shots aren't being put on the net. It wears skaters out by forcing them to constantly chase the puck (remember, no one skates as fast as a puck moves coming off a stick) and fight for possession along the boards. For everyone - the goalie, the guys on the ice, the guys on the bench, the coaching staff - it's demoralizing, and you start questioning what it's going to take to get the pressure off, let alone score a goal. In short, it wears you down. Anyone who doubts that ought to have a conversation with someone from an NHL team that's had the misfortune of facing the Detroit Red Wings in a playoff series.
Needless to say, an exhausted, demoralized team is one that's going to have a hard time winning, and that's something the Capitals coaching staff should make sure their team doesn't forget. Because when the Caps work the cycle like they did tonight, it's hard to imagine anyone beating them.
Ten additional notes on the game:
- Brian Pothier's had two goals and three assists and posted a plus-7 rating since being scratched against the Devils last week. That's good...right?
- The way Mathieu Perreault set up Pothier's goal by drawing the defense to him in order to create space and then moving the puck in to that space was not only a great play, it was a sign of a polished playmaker. Isn't there a way to get him more than 9:05 of ice time, especially when the team's down to eleven forwards?
- A lot has been said about what the additions of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison could mean for the Capitals locker room, but you know what? If every guy on this team played with the tenacity and attitude of Chris Clark, they'd be just fine.
- Cal Clutterbuck goes in to Mike Green with a a full head of steam and leaves his feet and...nothing. Not okay.
- Speaking of reactions to Clutterbuck hits, Nicklas Backstrom's cross check was a bad one. If you're going to let the play go, let it go; if you're going to retaliate and assert yourself physically, earn your two minutes. Fouling a player hard enough that a penalty is called, but not hard enough to have any other impact is about the worst thing you can do in that situation.
- You can't say enough about the way Tomas Fleischmann's playing this season. The most notable difference? Last season he would be invisible for games at a time. This season it's hard not to take notice of him on just about every shift.
- Not a flashy night, but a good one for David Steckel, who had four shots, two hits, a takeaway, and won 83% of his draws. Now if he could just start finding the net...
- After Wednesday's game I wrote, "There's perhaps no unwritten rule I hate more than when referees do everything in their power to avoid putting a team on a 5-on-3." I'd forgotten about the don't-call-a-late-penalty-against-the-trailing-team-in-a-close-game one.
- The Capitals would have been up 3-1 with four minutes left in the game if Alexander Semin has made more of an effort to get to the net on the Brooks Laich semi-breakaway he'd set up rather than floating on in.
- The Caps have now gone four games without giving their opponent more than three powerplay opportunities, good news for a team that's struggled with for discipline for most of the last 14 months.
Of course, as nice as it was to see the Capitals outwork the Wild and keep the pressure on, we know all too well that this team has lapsed at times when they've started to play like this in the past. Fortunately the Caps should get a good test tomorrow night against the Devils, giving the coaches and fans a better idea where they stand.
Or maybe that's just me trying to find a silver lining in having to see the Caps play the Jacques Lemaire-led New Jersey squad.