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Capitals Moments that Mattered: A Defenseless Defense

Poor defensive coverage on each of Buffalo's goals Tuesday night meant the difference between another rout and an overtime nail-biter.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night the Washington Capitals got a much-needed victory in Buffalo, continuing the offensive outburst that started in Montreal with a second-consecutive five-goal game. Unlike in Montreal, however, the Caps were unable to keep the score sheet clean on their side. Despite putting up four goals in regulation, the Caps needed a minute of overtime to secure two points because they were unable to maintain solid defense, especially in the area directly around Braden Holtby.

The first goal against changed the entire complexion of the game. The Caps had scored two early goals and Alex Ovechkin looked like he was ready to score five goals on the night. But because an easy two-goal lead is no such thing with these Caps, this happened:

Holtby does himself no favors on this play, with one of the worst rebounds you'll ever see - simply put, NHL goalies can't turn sharp-angle shots into rebounds in the slot. It's not a recipe for success. That said, the team defense was horrible for 200 feet.

The play starts with Christian Ehrhoff picking up the puck behind his own net, wheeling up the boards and making a bank-pass to Zemgus Girgensons, who sends the puck off the far blue line for Tyler Ennis - and just like that the Sabres were in the Caps' zone. The Sabres ended up covering ~190 feet of ice with two passes, a textbook breakout play. Now Connor Carrick is in a tough spot: Ennis is coming at him with speed, and he doesn't have help behind him. He backs in and keeps Ennis to the outside, which is about all you can ask.

Ennis chucks the puck at the net, Holtby kicks it into the slot, and now the real breakdowns become apparent. John Erskine is theoretically covering Matt Moulson, but on their path to the net Moulson just toys with Erskine, zig-zaging a couple of times behind him while not allowing Erskine to establish position or begin to engage physically. When the puck gets to the slot, Erskine is in no position to cover Moulson and Moulson fires a quick rebound shot back at Holtby. Fortunately (I guess), Holtby saved Moulson's rebound shot, but he was unable to clear or cover the puck, and his right foot wasn't anchored to the post.

Christian Ehrhoff - the same one that started the rush 200 feet ago - follows up Moulson's bid and finally slams home the rebound, Alex Ovechkin lurking nearby but holding his stick on the wrong side from the puck. (Don't re-watch the video now that you've probably realized that Ovechkin should have been covering Ehrhoff the entire length of the ice. And definitely do not try to figure out when Ehrhoff passed Ovechkin heading up ice, or how many strides Ovechkin took through the neutral zone.)

The final result is not going to end up on any instructional videos dedicated to defending the crease:


As ugly as it was, the Caps still held a 2-1 lead after the first period and were clearly the stronger team, and in the second period, the Caps continued to control the game, registering 16 of the 20 shots for the period. And yet somehow, in those four shots, the Sabres scored two goals, preventing the Caps from pulling away despite another two-goal period.

First up, Cody Hodgson's power-play goal:

Well that looks a little familiar. Given that the Caps have Alexander Ovechkin has scored on this exact play a time or two this year, you'd think the penalty-killers would be able to see it coming and have an idea how to defend it. Apparently you'd be wrong.

Karl Alzner wanders out into no man's land, not far enough to get into the passing lane between Ennis and Moulson. When Ennis throws the puck down to Moulson (think Nicklas Backstrom to Marcus Johansson), Carlson is left to cover the front of the net and the cross-crease passing lane by himself. As Moulson recieves the puck, Carlson's stick is guarding the passing lane to the slot... where no Sabres are. (Maybe Carlson was too used to playing against his own power play unit.) He doesn't turn to get into the actual passing lane fast enough, and Hodsgon makes a great shot off of the quick pass from Moulson:


Tie game.

After Mike Green scored his 100th career goal to give the Caps a lead, the Sabres answered yet again:

As with the first Buffalo goal, the play starts with the Sabres gaining speed through the neutral zone. This time, however, the Sabres need zero passes to unlock the Caps stifling neutral zone defense, as Brian Flynn skates the puck from his defensive zone to the offensive zone all by himself. His initial shot is blocked to the corner by Alzner, but Flynn easily wins the loose puck battle in the corner, and passes to Marcus Foligno (you may know him as the guy Eric Fehr isn't covering on the backcheck), and Foligno walks John Carlson as he drives the net.

It's hard to tell whether Troy Brouwer was able to disturb Foligno, or whether Foligno simply lost the puck, but either way Brouwer is outnumbered two-to-one right on the crease and is powerless to prevent Phil Varone from slamming home the loose puck:


Tie game. Again.

The Caps would still exit the second period with a lead thanks to a Brouwer power-play goal, but (and stop us if you've heard this one) the leaky defense would strike again in the third period:

Jason Chimera blows what should have been a relatively routine clear, and then blatantly grabs Hodgson, giving the Sabres a delayed penalty call advantage. It wouldn't matter. Before Jhonas Enroth could have gotten anywhere near his bench, the puck was in the net.

Chimera basically quits playing after his hold, already mentally skating to the penalty box; meanwhile Hodgson decides to actually keep playing hockey. Alzner steps out to confront Hodgson and also try to cover the passing lane to non-threat Ville Leino. Hodgson walks Alzner and spins him for good measure, making that both members of the Caps' top defensive pair that got walked in their own slot (and giving them a starring role in three of the four goals-against).

Hodgson gives a little forehand fake and then fires a quick backhand over Holtby's glove. Both Holtby and Carlson play it like they were afraid of a backdoor pass (Carlson doesn't step up as aggressively as he could have, while Holtby looked to already be cheating to the far post), which is understandable given the defensive coverage all game, but was unnecessary as the Sabres didn't have a real backdoor threat on that play (Tom Wilson was in pretty good position to take that pass away if Hodgson attempted it). This goal was really about one Sabre, Cody Hodgson, making a bunch of Capitals look bad. And boy did they look bad:


The Caps ultimately skated away with the win, but let's remember that their opponents were the last place team in the east by thirteen points. The Caps dominated the game by shots and Fenwick, but ended up in a dog fight.

We've already noted that the Caps have been less productive than their possession numbers would suggest of late, and total defensive breakdowns in front of your goalie go a long way to explain that. You can out-shoot your opponent by five or ten percent, but if you keep giving them wide-open looks in the slot you're going to have a hard time putting teams away.