On Tuesday night the Washington Capitals started their annual trip to Western Canada, a trip that has not always been kind to them. Facing a struggling Calgary Flames team (albeit one that made the playoffs last season, and had success against the Capitals), the Caps needed to get the road trip off to a good start; they did just that with a strong all-around performance en route to a comfortable victory.
But this early in the season we're just as worried with the "how" as the "what"... and the "how" on Tuesday night should inspire some confidence going forward.
Last week, we saw what happens when you mix aggressive defensive posture with lackadaisical defensive effort. Tuesday, we saw what happens when that aggressive defensive posture is executed according to plan. The Caps aggressively pressured the Calgary puck carriers constantly, and the pressure paid off with several goals. Yes, several.
Obviously, the first goal was a beautiful display of skill, but notice how the defensive pressure set up the goal. All three forwards are positioned close to each other, in the same quarter of the zone, just as the fourth line was in the example we saw against the New Jersey Devils.
The Flames don't have the same time and space that the Devils had, so they are unable to execute a breakout. Alex Ovechkin backs up to provide defensive support in case the Flames are able to move the puck up ice, but Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov both attack Dennis Wideman, forcing him to make a play under duress. He's unable to move the puck, culminating in a slick ripoff by Kuznetsov, and the Caps made the Flames pay:
The Caps weren't done pressuring the Flames skaters, or torching the Flames goalies. T.J. Oshie scored to punctuate a shift that saw the Caps' top line dominate the Flames, pinning the defensive squad in their own end with no recourse. But if you want a microcosm of what the Caps did to the Flames all night, take a look at the game-winning goal scored by Nicklas Backstrom. The entire shift demonstrated aggressive posture and relentless pressure:
Right from the start, the Capitals waste no time pressuring the Flames. When the puck comes out to the point, both Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams provide immediate pressure. A more conservative defensive approach would not have both wingers converge to the same point.
Kris Russell bobbles the puck and the Caps take immediate advantage, sending Johansson the other way. Unfortunately, Johansson's stick breaks as he tries to shoot, which you'd think would leave the Flames with an opportunity to breakout and move back up ice.
It doesn't work out that way.
Williams immediately pressures the Flames as they try to move the puck up the boards, and rather than back up to support the defense, Backstrom holds the blue line.
As a result, the Flames never get clean possession and John Carlson ends up with the puck cleanly at center ice.
Johansson is still in the offensive zone, and doesn't have a stick. Under Adam Oates, this puck is dumped into the corner 100% of the time. Barry Trotz, thankfully, is not Adam Oates, so John Carlson is allowed to carry the puck into the offensive zone. Notice how as he swings into the zone, Johansson seamlessly snags a new stick and gets back into the play.
It's a good thing Johansson got that stick, because it's his poke check that prevents Sean Monahan from getting possession of the puck and clearing the zone. Brooks Orpik gains the loose puck at the blue line and passes right back to Carlson, who still isn't out of the zone after leading the rush. Carlson finds Williams behind the net, and Williams toys with Wideman before picking up a nutmeg and a primary assist. This time Wideman at least made an attempt to cover his post, contrary to the Burakovsky goal, so that's progress, I guess.
As easy as saving 15% on your car insurance.
The Caps have been aggressive in their defensive posture throughout this young season. They don't readily fall back into the neutral zone and they haven't been collapsing around the slot looking to block shots or keep the offensive play to the outside. This leaves them less margin for error, as even a team as offensively bereft as the Devils can make you pay if you leave them too much open ice, but the upside of the approach was on display against the Flames.
With more skill in the top six than we've seen in a long time, the Capitals should be able to take advantage of opposition turnovers. As long as they stay disciplined in their assignments and maintain strong work ethic - as long as they "stick to the script" - they should be able to mitigate the risks.