Boudreau's System and Mental Lapses: A Deadly Combination (Updated with Executive Summary and Video)

Recognizing that the post below is too long for many, I've condensed the main points into a bulleted "executive summary." The full post, now with video, is below the jump.

  • The Caps seemingly suffer more from mental lapses than other teams. This tendency has been particularly evident during the first periods of games in their current series with Montreal.
  • I argue that the Caps don't suffer more from mental lapses than other teams; rather the aggressive nature of Boudreau's system increases the risk that inevitable ebbs in focus will result in goals against.
  • Defensive systems like Jacques Martin's don't minimize lapses - they attempt to mitigate the consequences of lapses.
  • Montreal's strategy in this series has been clear - come out aggressively in the first period to take advantage of the Caps' early lack of focus. In games 1, 2, 5 and 6 of this series, the Canadiens jumped out to early leads and managed to use their defensive system and great goaltending from Jaroslave Halak to hold onto them in three out of four instances.
  • The Caps' coaching staff and players need to ensure that they counter Montreal's early surge without surrendering a lead. This will require focused intensity on behalf of the players, and a willingness to modify the systems play on behalf of the coaching staff.

Over the last two years, the Capitals have seemed to suffer more from lapses in their mental focus during the course of games than most other teams in the NHL. This series against the Canadiens, and the opening period in particular, has thrown this tendency into stark relief. An idea about why this is the case has been percolating inside me this year and it bubbled up as a full-blown epiphany last night.

I don’t think the Caps lack focus more than any other team in the league. I think most teams in the NHL are only really capable of 40 minutes of hard, focused hockey. Every team has a lull at some point in a game – the team that comes out firing in the first cools off in the second; or the team that looks sleepy in the first wakes up in the third, etc. I’ve referred to this before as the Caps’ tendency to put on a "Keystone Kops" routine at least once a game where they get caught running around, take penalties and give up goals.

Part of this is human nature; nobody, regardless of talent level or dedication, can give 100-percent effort over sixty minutes. The other part of it, as we used to say in the military, is because "the enemy has a vote." Other teams are working to get you off your game, and opposing coaches and players are making adjustments to counter your advantages.

So the real question is, "why does the Caps’ lack of focus seem to hurt them so much more than other teams?"

I believe the answer lies in Boudreau’s system. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the Caps play in Boudreau’s system and it’s infinitely more exciting to watch than Hanlon’s system ever was. I’d much prefer to lose being aggressive than lose through passivity. That being said, the aggression of Boudreau’s system lends itself to the kind of breakdowns we’re seeing in the first period. Despite what some claim, it's not because the Caps don't play defense - it's because the Caps play a very aggressive form of defense, and this magnifies the negative consequences of breakdowns.

Take the first and second goals from Game 5. On the first, Knuble failed to get the puck deep enough, then missed his backchecking assignment. In a less-aggressive system, Knuble probably dumps that puck in, and the third forward is high, rather than down low anticipating the cycle. Furthermore, Knuble’s job is probably to backcheck straight toward the net, rather than put backside pressure on the puck.

On the second goal, numerous people have pointed out that Ovechkin didn’t drop down to support his defense, ignoring the fact that doing so isn’t his job in Boudreau’s system. He’s supposed to cover the point and be ready to start the breakout, not cover the front of the net. That was Sloan’s job and he made a mistake, in part because Backstrom didn’t do a stellar job guarding Gionta down low.

In both cases, a simple missed play (Knuble’s failure to get the puck deep coupled with his poor backcheck on the former, and Backstrom’s lack of effort coupled with Sloan’s positional mistake on the latter) led to a goal against because the Caps’ system is aggressive and lacks redundancy. If one player makes a mistake, there isn’t a teammate waiting behind him to pick up the slack.

I hate using other sports to explain hockey, because I frequently find the metaphors lacking, but I’m going to do it in this case because it illustrates the point well and hopefully expands the reach of my argument:

- The Caps play the hockey equivalent of a blitzing defense with man-to-man coverage on the corners. Responsibility is all on individual players, because there is no safety help if you get burned. When it’s working, it’s totally dominant, but when it breaks down, it surrenders lots of big plays.

- The Habs (and really, most teams in the league) play the hockey equivalent of the Cover-2 defense. It doesn’t aim to thwart the opposition so much as absorb it and slow it down. Small mistakes are minimized through mutual support. It’s boring, but safe.

In the Caps’ system, the forwards are constantly pressuring the puck and trying to create turnovers inside the offensive zone. What this means, however, is that the Caps often have one guy pressuring the puck, and two guys covering passing lanes. This often leaves two defensemen covering three forwards in the neutral zone. If you create a turnover it’s likely to lead to a scoring chance. If you let the puck get through, on the other hand, you likely face an odd-man rush the other way. It’s incumbent on individual players (in this case the two defensemen and the off-wing forward, or "third man"), to cover these guys. That off-wing forward needs to hustle his ass off, or almost every breakout is going to result in a 3-on-2. The defensemen need to cover the right guys and not allow them space, while simultaneously not letting the opposition get behind them. Any small mistake or momentary lapse in focus can lead to disaster.

The contrast with the Habs’ system couldn’t be more stark. There’s very little pressure on the puckhandler inside the zone. Instead, they back up and take away passing lanes. If one guy gets beat on the rush, there are four guys behind him to pick up the slack and slow the puck carrier down, allowing him to get back into the play. The entire system is predicated around not letting the other team get odd-man rushes against. They want to force you to dump the puck in.

Once inside the zone, the Habs cheat toward their goal. They’re happy to surrender the points, knowing that these are low-percentage shots that can be blocked fairly easily. This is why the Caps could take 54 shots yesterday, yet only score on 1 (well, that and an insane performance by Halak).

In practice, what this means is that one small mistake by a Capital leads to a scoring chance-against, whereas one mistake by a Canadien is less consequential because his teammates are covering for him.

Returning to my point about focus and my assertion that every team is going to lose focus at some point in a game, the Caps and Habs (you could substitute almost any opponent here, though) both have lapses in focus during games. The Habs’ system is built around hedging against such lapses through playing safe, cheating toward the defensive and having redundant defensive backups. By contrast, the Caps’ system is built around the notion that, on balance, the Caps’ aggression will create more scoring chances than it gives up, and the Caps’ superior skill will convert more of those chances than their opponent.

As we have seen throughout this series, unfortunately, the Caps’ lapses (try saying that ten times fast) are occurring predominantly in the first period and Montreal has enough skill up front (Cammalleri and Plekanec) to take advantage of those windows to gain a two-goal advantage. At this point, Montreal simply goes into a defensive shell, playing the NHL equivalent of the prevent defense. When the Habs have had their lapses in focus, their system has minimized the damage, and Halak has admirably held the fort behind them. Even if the Caps manage to overcome their five on five lapses, the massive special teams disparity in favor of Montreal evens the playing field yet further.

What we’re watching play out is exactly what R.J. Umberger was talking about after we played Columbus. He said that the Caps "don’t play the game the right way." What he ought to have said was that every hockey team is going to have mental lapses during a game, and that the Caps’ system leaves them very vulnerable when those lapses occur, while systems like Ken Hitchcock’s, (or Jacques Lemaire’s or Jacques Martin’s, or Claude Julien’s. . . ) minimize the risks during such situations.

There is a reason that most coaches use much more conservative systems; it’s not necessarily that they’re better, it’s that they’re better able to control for the uncertainty inherent in ice hockey. Boudreau’s system, through its aggression, seeks to capitalize on that uncertainty but leaves itself open to counter-attacks.

I’m not saying that the Caps can’t win the Cup playing Boudreau’s system, but I do believe that it will require adjustments on the part of the coaching staff and players. The coaches need to be more patient and willing to take what the opposition is giving them. In this series, that means more dump and chase, more taking the puck wide on the rush, and more point shots with traffic in front. For their part, the players need to realize that they cannot have a lapse in focus during the first period, because once Montreal gets a lead and goes into a shell in front of Halak, they’re very, very hard to beat.

The solution is two-fold in my opinion. First, the players need to ensure that they come out with focused intensity in the first period. It's easy to come out with energy and run around hitting everyone - that's not what I'm talking about. The Caps need to hustle and play physically, but they need to play within themselves and not make inordinately risky plays - at least for the first ten minutes of the game. They need to avoid penalties and bad turnovers.

For their part, the coaches need to emphasize dumping the puck in and making the Canadiens skate 200 feet with the puck on every possession. For the first ten minutes, at least, the Caps should consider pulling their "third man" on the forecheck out further to neutral ice to minimize odd-man chances against. (In Boudreau's neutral-zone system, the defensemen fill the lane with the puck and the center lane, while the "third man" forward fills the off-side lane.) Inside the defensive zone, the coaches should at least consider having the wings drop lower down the half-boards to support the play, at least when Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri are on the ice.

The Caps have made these adjustments before during both the regular and post-season, but typically they've done it once they've got a big lead. I'm suggesting that they implement these changes during the first 10 minutes of the first period - long enough to weather Montreal's initial burst of energy and settle things down. Over the course of 50 minutes, the Caps' skill will win out - they just need to not be in a two-to-nothing hole from the outset.

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