One of the big questions for the Washington Capitals as they enter the 2014-15 season has been how new head coach Barry Trotz would mesh with superstar Alex Ovechkin. Could Trotz get Ovechkin to buy in to a team system? Could he get Ovechkin to play defense? Would the Caps be a conservative defensive team like the Nashville Predators were for so many years under Trotz?
Saturday night against the Boston Bruins, we got the first glimpse of an answer to those questions. Ovechkin capped off a two-goal first period with an even strength tally late in the first period, and the "how" is every bit as important as the "who" in this instance. Taking a look at how the Capitals scored their second goal against Boston, we can see how Trotz wants the Capitals to play, and there's a lot to like about it.
First, the video:
The play starts off with a great quick-up pass from Braden Holtby (and let's remember that he made a huge save on Chris Kelly in the slot just a little over a minute before this clip starts), which gets the Caps moving up ice with speed. The Bruins overload the neutral zone and stack the blue line, with four defenders all taking away Nicklas Backstrom's time and space. Backstrom dumps the puck into the corner, and we can see the Caps' forecheck start to take shape:
Eric Fehr is the first man on the forecheck and he's pressuring hard. Ovechkin and Backstrom are both reading the play, ready to support Fehr depending on which side of the ice the puck is; on the replay angle you can see that both players skate down the the faceoff circle, with Backstrom ready to support Fehr if the puck stays on the right side of the ice and Ovechkin ready to support if the puck is moved over to the left side:
Fehr beats Zdeno Chara to the end boards and gets inside position for the puck battle. Patrice Bergeron comes in to support Chara, so Backstrom joins the battle to make it two-on-two. When Ovechkin sees Backstrom join the battle, he swings to the middle of the ice ready to react to whatever results from the battle below the goal line:
The Caps battle the Bruins to a stalemate, leaving Bergeron with one option - dump the puck around the boards and hope for another Bruin to win the battle and get the clear.
But that's not what happens.
Instead, almost unbelievably, Karl Alzner pinches down from his point position and holds the puck in the zone, passing it back to Backstrom. Under Adam Oates, there's almost zero chance that Alzner would have made that pinch. By the time Alzner reaches the puck, he's already below the faceoff dot. Oates was much more conservative with his defensemen and would not have wanted a defender below the faceoff dots to hold a puck in.
Trotz, the supposedly defense-first coach, has given the Caps D the green light to pinch in the zone to maintain offensive possession - but Alzner can only make that pinch if he knows there is going to be defensive coverage from one of the forwards. With Backstrom and Fehr behind the goal line, that leaves only one forward available to provide that defensive coverage... Ovechkin. That may not give Caps fans a whole lot of confidence, but Ovechkin made the right defensive play, and it's what allowed him to get so open down near the net.
As the Caps see Bergeron start to dump the puck around the boards, they read the play quickly and jump into action:
Ovechkin rotates high to support the defense, and Alzner has already pivoted to start jumping down to the corner. It's great to see how quickly Ovechkin and Alzner read the play given how new this system is to them, but also take note of where the Caps have set up their back line of defense in the offensive zone. The high forward and both defensemen are all lined up across the top of the face off circles. That is not a conservative defensive posture, and it suggests that Trotz wants the Caps to take all of the ice the opponents are willing to give them. Alzner probably can't make that pinch from the blue line, but starting at the top of the faceoff circle allows him to jump into the play before the Bruins can recover the loose puck.
Brad Marchand started as the weak side wing in the Boston defense, giving him defensive responsibility for the high slot. As the play develops, Marchand picks up Ovechkin in the slot and stays with him as Ovechkin curls up high to cover for Alzner:
The Bruins, despite their inability to gain clear control of the puck, are still in solid defensive position. The Caps haven't gotten any clear control and they don't even have a shooter available in any dangerous spot in the ice. But things happen quickly in the NHL, especially when superstar talent is on the ice.
As soon as Alzner makes the play to keep the puck in the zone he pivots and starts skating back up to his point position. Ovechkin reads this and immediately begins jumping back into the play. Marchand reads the play a split-second too late, and Ovechkin skates right past him with an unimpeded path to the net:
As Backstrom cycles out of the corner he sees Ovechkin charging down from the point, and he slides Ovechkin a little backhand pass. Riley Smith has slot responsibility as the weak side wing, but is too late getting over to cover Ovechkin. A quick snap of the wrist later and the Caps own a 2-0 lead late in the first period.
Everybody knows about Ovechkin's shot and it's the main reason defenses cover him so tightly throughout the season. It's not very often Ovechkin gets such a wide open look this close to the net at even strength, but by rotating up high to cover for the pinching defense, Ovechkin got lost in the shuffle in the offensive zone, giving him just enough time and space to get off a clean shot from a dangerous location. We've often said that Ovechkin is at his best when he's finding soft spots in the defense; hopefully this is a sign of things to come for the Captain and the team.
It was just one goal in a long 82-game season, but watching how the Caps approached this play, and the payoff, should give Caps fans some excitement about the Barry Trotz era in DC. This is not the kind of defense-first approach we were told to expect. From the quick two men hard on the forecheck to start the play, to the defensemen holding the point position around the top of the faceoff circles, to Alzner's pinch, the entire shift was characterized by an aggressive approach to the game. We saw the Caps do this against Montreal, constantly sending two men after any loose puck, but without much success on the score sheet.
If the Caps continue to play this way, it will not only be fun to watch, but it will likely lead to team success as well.
Update: Courtesy of bsheridan, you can enjoy the entire sequence below: