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Capitals Moments That Mattered: A New Hope?

A look at the pretty boys doing the dirty work

Winnipeg Jets v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Last night the Washington Capitals returned home from their Western Canada road trip to finish a home-and-home set with the Winnipeg Jets. The Caps jumped out to a lead despite a questionable first period, and then dominated the second en route to a 3-0 lead. Something happened in the third (*cough*), and Ovechkin finally sealed the game from his office in overtime. But let’s focus on that three-goal lead, specifically how they got the three goal lead.

Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Ovechkin come up with the goals. Aside from maybe Oshie, if you had heard that before the game you probably aren’t expecting three rebound goals from just outside the crease, collectively traveling maybe fifteen feet. But that’s how it played out... and that should be an encouraging sign for Caps fans. Let’s take a look at the first goal:

Where do we start. First off, amazing teamwork in the neutral zone. All too often teams get stuck in the “forward only” mindset in the neutral zone at even strength. Undoubtedly Adam Oates would have Justin Williams dumping that puck in (assuming the Caps even got out of their own zone with the puck). Instead, a nice, subtle pass back to Backstrom allows the Caps to enter the zone with possession, as a unit.

The Caps are still outnumbered as they enter the zone, but it’s safe to say they had a bit of a talent advantage. The hard backcheck was exposed by Ovechkin when he hit the brakes and cut to the middle. We don’t see Ovechkin get open looks from the top of the circle at even strength too often, but here’s another example of how effective he can be by allowing his teammates to carry the mail. Not only is it more effective for Ovechkin, take a look at how this opens up the lane to the net for Backstrom. When Ovechkin hits the brakes, three defenders stop to face him. Backstrom skates by all of them and picks up an easy rebound and finishes with a great backhand that hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves.

Next up we have Oshie’s goal, the most likely candidate of the three goal scorers to be cleaning up the net-front garbage:

Once again, the Caps cross the offensive blueline with support; two players hit the blueline at the same time with one trailing closely behind. As the Caps set up the forecheck, the Jets have decent defensive coverage, once again outnumbering the Caps down low. But Patrick Laine gets caught absolutely cheating that Andre Burakovsky will carry or pass the puck behind the net, taking himself out of the play and letting Oshie crash the net. One slick pass later and Oshie has all the time and space he needs right in front.

Finally we get to Ovechkin:

Once again, the Jets have great defensive coverage down low, but an aggressive forecheck knocked the puck free. Given the collapsed defensive posture, Dmitry Orlov was able to step further into the offensive zone than you would typically see, and when he picks up the loose puck Backstrom pulls out high to provide support. Then things go bad for the Jets.

The Jets go from having all five defenders below the faceoff dots to having four defenders above the faceoff dots, all staring at the puck. The one defender left protecting the low-half of the zone is covering Williams in front, so when Michael Hutchinson was unable to control John Carlson’s point shot, Ovechkin had literally nothing to stop him from putting the puck in the open net. Three-zip, game over (surely) and we can all go home with another comfortable victory in the books.

For the entire Ovechkin era, Caps fans have been left wondering where the offense went come April and May. A common refrain has been “they need to get dirty goals,” yet we haven’t seen a change in offensive approach that would create those dirty goals. It may seem elementary, but getting dirty goals is integrally tied to offensive mindset. As I discussed with Adam Stringham, there are situations in which working for a dirty goal and working for a pretty goal are mutually exclusive. A team that consistently looks for pretty goals will rob itself of the opportunity to score dirty goals. Here’s hoping this net-crashing mindset persists throughout the year, even if the Caps can’t always count on the opponents to cooperate with egregious defensive zone breakdowns.