Thursday night the Washington Capitals faced off against the Florida Panthers, and unlike years past there seemed no shortage of motivation.
The Caps came out strong and had a 2-0 lead before the home fans had even settled into the lower bowl, but a dominant first period was followed by a less-than-dominant second and the Capitals once again found themselves in a tie game heading into the third period. Fortunately for the Caps, the top line came through once again, helping them secure two more points in their quest to defend the Presidents’ Trophy.
Alex Ovechkin, game-winning goal, assisted by a right-handed defenseman. We all know how that looks. Except this time it wasn’t quite the typical Ovechkin goal, and that’s the best part. Obviously Ovechkin has an incredible shot and he’s got more highlight reel goals than the rest of the roster combined, but Ovechkin has found it much harder to find open ice near the net at even strength than he did earlier in his career.
Oddly enough, the solution isn’t to keep forcing the puck to Ovechkin - it’s to let him play off the puck. Let’s take a look:
The puck is dumped into the offensive-zone left-wing corner, and both Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie race to gain control. Oshie wins the race, but watch how Ovechkin supports Oshie, and the reaction of the Florida defense:
All five defenders are down below the faceoff circles, with only Ovechkin in a halfway decent scoring position for the Caps.
Ovechkin is cocked for the one-timer, and Oshie tries to make the pass; the Panthers aren’t going to give it up that easily, though, and a stick check prevents Ovechkin from receiving the puck.
But look what happens when the puck moves back to the point:
The Panthers’ D is forced to open up, with two forwards racing to apply pressure to Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen. Meanwhile, all three Capitals forwards are now in prime scoring position, and there are only three Panthers to defend the area. The overhead replay shows just how much more room the Caps forwards were given following the low-to-high (unintentional) pass:
At the start of the play the only forward with any space is Ovechkin, and even that space is deceptive, as was made clear when Oshie’s pass was thwarted. Evgeny Kuznetsov is completely out of the play and Oshie is quickly running out of real estate. But when the puck goes high...
That may not look like a lot, but the closest defender to Ovechkin is barely within stick-checking distance. Ovi simply does not get that kind of room in the slot these days, certainly not like he used to (go ahead and pull up the video of the first ever Ovechkin goal, we’ll wait. Crazy, right?).
Kuznetsov has also worked himself to the top of the crease and Oshie is circling his way to the high slot:
The puck is circled in red for reference, but take a look at how starkly the offensive and defensive postures have changed. All three Caps forwards are able to jump on a potential rebound, and Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are also able to provide a bit of a screen or a deflection. Aleksander Barkov gets into position to make a half-hearted stick check on Ovechkin but it’s too late. The Caps were back in front, and in the critical sequence the most dangerous scorer in the world ended up touching the puck for a tiny fraction of a second.
The Caps are still going to be a skill-first team - it’s in their DNA. They’ll make pretty passes, they’ll score on the rush, and they’ll rack up points. What they haven’t consistently done, and what has hurt them in the Spring, is get dirty goals from their skilled players. If the Caps top lines can continue to crash the net like this (or think about Kuznetsov’s goal earlier in the game, or even his goal in the World Cup) they’ll be even more dangerous.