Caps Looking for Goals, Not Style Points

By Scott Lowe

The good news for Washington Capitals fans is that despite a very solid defensive effort and a 2-1 overtime victory Wednesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the players don’t seem satisfied with their offensive performance.

If you had to classify the Caps’ two goals against Rangers all-world netminder Henrik Lundqvist, Alex Ovechkin’s third-period tying marker would have to be considered “dirty,” while Alexander Semin’s laser-beam one-timer in overtime was a thing of beauty. To a man, Washington players – including the top line – have spoken in the past two days about generating more traffic in front of the net, creating rebounds and scoring more ugly goals. Ovechkin himself said that ugly goals “are the prettiest goals in the playoffs.”

Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “Sometimes it’s easier said than done. The Rangers do a good job of blocking out. To really be effective you need the time to get a clean shot off form the point and the ability to get people to the net as the shot is being taken.”

With teams focusing more and more on crowding the middle of the ice and dropping to block shots these days, just getting the puck to the net can be difficult at times. From an offensive perspective it becomes important to simply get pucks to the net quickly when an opening presents itself instead of winding up for the 100-plus mph blast. Patience and a willingness to fake the shot and move the puck quickly to an open teammate while getting a defensive player to commit and leave his feet also can create open lanes.

The problem is that the way many teams, including the Rangers, play this time of year, sometimes you have to penetrate three layers of defense (wing, center, d-man) to get a puck to the goaltender. So, getting one defensive player to sprawl and slide out of position often leaves several others ready to sacrifice their bodies in the name of team defense.

Washington appears to have learned its lesson on both ends of the ice in its opening-round loss to Montreal last year, recording 32 blocked shots of its own in Game 1 (more than New York) and refusing to simply blast shots into defensive players’ shinguards.

“Shot-blocking has become a big part of hockey,” Boudreau said. “If you don’t do it you are not going to be successful. Look at all the best defensive teams and the defensemen and forwards are committed to blocking shots. I don’t think we are any different. It all gets ramped up in the playoffs, and players are willing to sacrifice even more to block shots.”

During their recent late-season run in which they closed the campaign by going 16-3-1, the Caps’ point men showed much greater patience and poise with the puck, often either faking the wingers out of position and finding an open teammate or firing a puck wide in hopes of either finding a friendly stick for a deflection or at least maintaining possession. During Game 1 Washington defenders fired several shots that caromed off the back boards and ended up right in front of the net. One resulted in a near miss by Ovechkin and others bounced over the sticks of teammates in front of the net with Lundqvist out of position.

“This isn’t the 70s when I could suit up a goon, sit him on the end of the bench and tell him to go out and rip Lundqvist’s head off,” Boudreau said. “We have to keep firing pucks, get more traffic in front and do things to distract him. The last 10 minutes of the game you are thinking, ‘Jeez, here we go again,’ but we kept going and found a way to sneak one by him.”

They found a way to sneak an ugly one by him, and thanks to a rare defensive-zone mistake by Marc Staal and a deft pass by newcomer Jason Arnott, managed to blast a picture-perfect rocket by him as well. Perhaps most encouraging for Washington was that three of their prettier attempts rang off of posts and it took a tremendous save by Lundqvist to thwart a smooth breakaway deke attempt by Nicklas Backstrom.

“I’m like the fans when we are having trouble scoring, thinking, ‘Oh my God. Here we go again,’” Boudreau said. "But I can’t let the players see that. I can’t show them that I’m disheartened. I have to be able to be a cheerleader as well and give the guys confidence on the bench. I did that on Nicki’s breakaway. I told him that the goalie made a great save and tried to make sure he didn’t get down and wanted him to feel good about himself. He made a great move.

“This year because we don’t score as many goals it seems like when we get behind it’s magnified more. It wasn’t a question of not panicking. Both teams were getting chances, and it was a very close-to-the-vest game. The last eight minutes of regulation we had to take more chances, which is common when you are behind. I don’t think we are any different from any other team.”

The end result was a solid performance – perhaps one of the best of the season – by Backstrom, who controlled the tempo whenever he was on the ice and created numerous opportunities for his teammates to score. But neither the cheerleading nor the hard work can end there.

“We are not out of the woods by any means,” Boudreau said. “This is going to be a very tough series. The New York Rangers are vastly underrated. There are some things that we did pretty well, but we still have to get better or else we’ll find ourselves in the same boat as in the past.”