As we're sure you're all aware, the Washington Capitals started off their 2015-16 NHL Season with a win over the New Jersey Devils over the weekend - but while the final score may have looked comfortable, most of the game was tightly contested (that is, until Alex Ovechkin woke up).
One troubling aspect of the Caps' play, one that has existed seemingly for all of Ovechkin's career, was their inability to maintain focus and discipline in the face of a multi-goal lead. After great work from Jason Chimera, Justin Williams, Tom Wilson, and Brooks Orpik staked the Caps to a 2-0 lead (natch), the Caps let the Devils right back in the game with a sloppy shift from the fourth line and the top defensive pair. First, the video:
That's not exactly what the coaches are looking for in the all-important shift after a goal.
The play starts off innocently enough. The Caps' fourth line is able to track down the puck in the neutral zone and dump it into the Devils' zone. Unfortunately, the Caps are not only unable to establish the forecheck, but all three forwards get caught in one quarter of the Devils' zone, leaving plenty of open ice to work the breakout.
The Devils make good use of the open ice and swing the puck to the far side. The Caps should still be in decent position to get back, with Orpik and John Carlson both with decent gap control up by the red line and Brooks Laich already high in the offensive zone. Sean Collins and Michael Latta immediately begin backchecking hard, and it looks like the Caps will be able to to maintain strong defensive positioning.
The puck is being passed up to Kyle Palmieri in the screenshot above, and Orpik reads that he's got backchecking help from the forwards and is the only Caps defender on the strong side of the ice. He steps up on Palmieri to try to prevent the Devils from gaining the red line with ease.
Unfortunately, that's the point at which all three Caps forwards stop skating and the defensive posture quickly deteriorates. Watch the video again. None of the backchecking forwards are moving their feet as they cross the offensive blue line.
Still, the Caps have another chance to control the situation after Orpik steps up on Palmieri.
(Quick question, in which direction does it look like Collins (middle) is skating? That's not the greatest defensive posture for a checking forward...)
Between the two Brooks', the Capitals should have won that puck. Both are right on Palmieri and the Devils forward doesn't even have the option to dump the puck in deep... and yet somehow, the Caps don't win control of the puck, or even slow down the Devils attack.
It's unclear whether Laich gets a stick on the puck and just bobbles it back toward the Caps' blue line, or if Laich is unable to get to the puck and Palmieri beats him with a quick touch pass through neutral. Either way, the result is the same, as Laich is unable to support Orpik on the step-up and the Devils have John Carlson in a bad spot.
Laich tries to step on the gas to catch up with the Devils' rush, but both he and Carlson commit to Jiri Tlusty, leaving Adam Henrique all alone in the middle of the ice. A quick pass over to Henrique and the rest is history.
No doubt Carlson thought he had some backchecking help, and the play did develop quickly, but you can't get caught outside the left-wing neutral-zone faceoff dot as the right-side defender. Add in that he had much more help from Laich on Tlusty than he did from anyone on Henrique, and the smarter play would probably have been to play a bit more conservatively toward the middle of the ice. Of course, we're critiquing Carlson for not taking the ideal tack to bail his teammates out after they put him in a tough spot.
It's only one goal in only one game of 82. The Caps still won, so no harm, no foul, right? Maybe. But as noted above, this has been a trend that Caps fans have noticed for years now (whether the trend is real, or meaningfully different from any other team is an open question), and it's frustrating to see such a lackadaisical and disinterested shift coming right after the Caps had taken a two-goal lead at home. The lack of effort is even more troubling than simply conceding a goal here, and you can bet that Barry Trotz will have some private words with the fourth line over this performance.
There's no such thing as an easy win in the NHL, but given how difficult the Metropolitan Division is, the Caps really need to make hay against the teams that don't appear to be poised for a playoff battle.That's especially the case given the Devils were on the second night of back to back games (which may be why the Caps were suddenly able to break out in the third period). Losing focus and taking shifts off (especially against top opposition lines) is only going to make the job harder.
It's a long season, and these things happen, but given the concern in the bottom six and the historical concern with the Caps' ability to maintain focus when leading, this is one area we'll be watching closely this season.