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Dealing with the Devils

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The Caps won the first meeting with the Devils by a convincing score. It won't be as easy tonight, but there were lessons to be learned.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight the Washington Capitals face off against their division rivals, the New Jersey Devils in the second of (at least) five meetings between the teams this season. The Caps won the last match-up by a 6-2 score, but the game could have been out of hand the other way if not for the goaltending each team got. The win was nice, of course, but nobody should count on Cory Schneider playing like that again, and Braden Holtby hasn't been as good as he was in the first period of that game often enough since. The Caps will need to execute like they did in the second and third periods if they want to win tonight. So what does that look like?

After the first game, John Walton interviewed Barry Trotz and we were treated to some of the coach's insight into the game. Specifically, Trotz mentioned "getting pucks deep against their three across the blue line." The Devils were stacking three men across the blue line routinely, but the Caps were able to have some success offensively, including a couple of goals. First, Chris Brown scores after beating the Devils defense on the right wing boards:

That's not exactly what Trotz was talking about - he probably doesn't want the forwards to try to carry through the defensive alignment when the Devils set up their three men across the blue line. It worked here, though, and part of the reason it worked was because Mike Green realizes that Brown had some space wide of the outside defender and moves the puck quickly so that Brown could take advantage. Brown does take advantage, just squeaking by the defense... and then he takes advantage of Schneider.

Of course if you can carry the puck into the zone, you'll take it. But that option isn't always there and teams need to find a way to gain the zone when teams won't let you carry the puck in. Fortunately for the Caps, Brown's wasn't the only goal of the night that beat the three-man alignment. Marcus Johansson scored in the second period, capping off a shift that started with the Caps gaining the offensive zone against the three-man setup:

Green starts the attack, again, but this time it looks more like what Trotz was discussing. Green gains the red line and then whips the puck around the boards so that Schneider can't play it and the Devils couldn't pick it up cleanly. Johansson attacks on the far side of the rink, wide of the outside Devils defender, again. He wins the race and prevents the Devils from taking the puck and starting their breakout. Nate Schmidt is able to hold the zone, and the Caps begin a cycle that ends up with a Caps goal. It'd be hard to find a better example of what Trotz wants to see against that defensive alignment.

The fourth line also had a nice shift by winning a race to a dumped-in puck:

On the neutral zone regroup Green passes D-to-D to Schmidt, who immediately steps over the red line and puts the puck in the opposite corner. Evgeny Kuznetsov is wide of the outside Devils defender, and wins the race to the puck and set up the cycle. They didn't score, but they kept possession and had a good chance, while the Devils wouldn't get into the offensive zone until they changed lines. That's a win for a fourth line.

Speed outside has been a key to these examples, but the other way to beat this defensive approach is to be fast and accurate in your own end. There were a couple of examples where the Caps' speed prevented the Devils from ever getting the three men across the blue line, and if the Caps can keep replicate this, they should be able to set up some offense without having to fight through the neutral zone only to dump the puck in and go right back into fighting for possession.

The Joel Ward-Eric Fehr-Jason Chimera line provided a great example:

Fehr and Chimera battle to keep the Devils from taking possession of a loose puck, and Ward steps in to pick up the puck after it squirted out of the scrum. One quick pass to Chimera, one quick return pass, and the Caps have a rush up ice that looks like it could be a two-on-one. Ward takes the shot and Schneider smothers it, but it still flips the ice and sets the Caps up with an offensive zone draw. Another successful shift.

Johansson's line has even more speed, and they also took advantage of it:

Again, Andre Burakovsky and Brooks Laich battle to free the puck from the scrum along the boards, and then Johansson does the sensible thing and relives Laich of his puck carrying duties. Nobody is catching Johansson with a full head of steam and that much room outside and that became one of the easiest zone entries the Caps would have all game.

Both of these examples stem from winning battles on the boards and quickly moving up ice, but that's not always going to be possible. When the Devils do set up their three men across the blue line, the Caps are going to have to remember what it takes to be successful: speed through neutral, especially out wide. That means good timing on the dump-ins and then committed puck retrieval. The Devils obviously are not going to make it easy, but the Caps have speed throughout the lineup and defensemen that move the puck well so they should be situated to execute. It's just a matter of doing it.