Last night the Washington Capitals took on the St. Louis Blues with a chance to take the Metropolitan Division lead - not an easy task against one of the best teams in the league, whether you judge by possession metrics, standings points, or goals-scored percentage. Ken Hitchcock teams are always coached well and a couple of Hitchock's fundamental tenets are to take care of the puck and slow down opposition speed in the neutral zone. Factor in the lackluster performances the Caps have had against the Western Conference and it seemed like a tall order.
However, just under halfway into the first period, a sloppy neutral zone pass by the Blues gave the Capitals the opportunity for a quick-strike on transition:
This shift starts with an offensive zone faceoff for the Capitals. Nicklas Backstrom wins the draw right back to Alex Ovechkin, who fires the puck wide, giving St. Louis a chance to move the puck up ice. As the highlight video above starts, the Blues are working the puck out of their zone with control and the Caps aren't providing much pressure. Chris Stewart, who has been nothing but a disappointment since his "breakout" 28-goal season in 2009-10, gets the puck with two passing options and only token pressure from Ovechkin. Rather than turning to face his teammates and making a strong play on the puck, Stewart tosses a blind backhand pass out into the neutral zone.
You can be sure that pass has already made it's way into Ken Hitchcock's highlight reel of "things you never want to do if you don't want to get stapled to the bench."
The puck makes its way to Steve Oleksy, who controls the puck, picks his head up to take a look at his options, and then fires a crisp pass right to Backstrom. The contrast between how Oleksy handled the puck compared to Stewart could not be starker:
Rather than throwing the puck blindly, Oleksy looks right at Backstrom. Rather than sort of just laying the puck out into open neutral zone ice, Oleksy makes sure the puck has plenty on it to get right to Backstrom. The turnover by Stewart catches his teammates in a bad position, as the Blues forwards are charging up ice and the defense is lagging a little bit. This contributes to poor gap control, allowing the Caps forwards to turn and pick up speed coming through the neutral zone.
We've seen how turnovers can ruin defensive zone coverage, and the same principles apply in the neutral zone. Roman Polak has to step up quickly to challenge Backstrom, but nobody is covering Ovechkin as he curls through neutral to pick up a full head of steam. Finally, because Oleksy made a crisp pass, he gave Nick the option for a sneaky little deflection pass to Ovechkin:
When Oleksy's pass arrives, Backstrom sees Ovechkin curling through the neutral zone with speed and simply deflects the puck back through his legs right into Ovechkin's skating lane. If Oleksy had sent Nick a softer pass, the deflection likely would have slowed the puck down too much to get to Ovechkin (and probably would have given Roman Polak time to get up on Backstrom and break up the pass).
When Polak steps up to cover Backstrom, it leaves one St. Louis defenseman back to cover Ovechkin (Ian Cole). Stewart is coming across to help Cole, but it's too late. With no help, Cole can't step up on Ovechkin and he has to let Ovechkin skate into the top of the faceoff circles. Instead of turning the puck back over to St. Louis, the Backstrom-to-Ovechkin deflection works perfectly and Ovechkin carries the puck into the offensive zone, firing a puck past Jaroslav Halak:
Alex Ovechkin used to score off the rush a ton, but we haven't seen it as much under Adam Oates (how many goals can you think of this season where Ovechkin carried the puck over the blueline?). This play took some bad St. Louis breakdowns in the neutral zone to give the Caps the chance to score on the rush, but it's nice to see the Caps convert when the opposition gives them an opportunity.
NHL teams are so good in the neutral zone that it's rare to see skilled players break through with speed and puck control... this shows how being sloppy with the puck can contribute to breaking down your team's neutral zone structure and defensive responsibilities, and what can happen when you do that against elite talent.