Potvin Says "Lazy" Caps Need a Kick in the Butt

By Scott Lowe
So far during the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps have been the better team five-on-five. In fact, they were dominant at even strength in their Game 2 overtime loss. It’s been said throughout hockey annals, however, that specials teams can be the difference during the playoffs. That certainly has been the case thus far in this series. But why?

Denis Potvin, speaking this morning on Sirius/XM Home Ice, seems to think it all comes down to effort. “They are just being lazy and are not playing smart,” the Hall of Fame defenseman said of the Capitals. “This goes beyond X’s and O’s. They need a kick in the butt, and for the sake of a good hockey series, I hope they get it.

“I’m watching the Capitals and some of the things I’m seeing are unbelievable. (Alex) Ovechkin is coming through the neutral zone with speed on the power play and four guys are standing still across the blue line. What kind of zone entry is that? Then, when they get in the zone, I’m watching (Mike) Green and some of the others standing right next to their checks. They aren’t even trying to get into the open passing lanes. The defense is having a ball. All they have to do is swipe their sticks back and forth and they’ve got all the passing lanes covered.”

Potvin, who recently had become a Caps believer thanks to their second-half transformation from a powerful offensive team to a defensively responsible club, spoke with an edge much like someone who thinks he’s been duped, at one point scoffing, “They are just damn lazy.” And he continued: “Sometimes the threat of getting beaten on physically is motivation enough. That was happening in the first series against the Rangers, but it’s not happening in this series. They are getting methodically picked apart.”

Lazy may be a bit harsh when characterizing the Caps’ overall effort, especially considering the dominance they displayed at even strength in Game 2, but they certainly haven’t shown the same commitment to getting to the net and winning physical battles along the boards that they did against New York. They also have shown an inability to adapt on the power play and when the Lightning are in their full-out 1-3-1 trap.

Maybe the physical part comes down to, as Potvin says, Washington not being pounded at every turn like they were against the Rangers. When it comes to the mental side, although they have taken a bunch of penalties in the first two contests, the Bolts have remained disciplined within their system because they believe it is the only way they can win (and they probably are right). The Caps, on the other hand, have been frustrated by Tampa’s relatively new trapping style and have not stayed as true to the plan that has gotten them this far.

After tying Game 2 with slightly more than a minute remaining on a hard-working goal by Ovechkin Sunday, the Caps came out in overtime with a lot of energy, freewheeling a bit more and presumably going for the quick kill. While they did create some chances, Washington also gave the Bolts’ skill players a lot of ice to work with and ultimately got caught on a bad change that resulted in Vincent Lacavalier’s game-winner. The tempo of the game had changed, and it looked like the Caps were just out of sync when trying to get a new line on the ice.

“(Coach) Bruce (Boudreau) even mentioned it to us between periods that we had the long change and had to be careful,” said Washington defenseman Jeff Schultz. “It came down to us as players and a miscommunication and they just capitalized.”

The fact that Tampa capitalized is indicative of the way this series has gone to date. Much like the Canadiens last year, the Lightning are content to sit back and turn each game basically into a half-court affair, looking for an opportunity to counter-attack with their skill players or score on the power play. The Bolts aren’t showing much of a forecheck, instead choosing to set up with one player in the center of the ice in between their own blue line and the red line, three players across the blue line and one player in the center of the ice between the faceoff dots in their own end. Their objective is to step up and keep Washington from entering the zone with speed, forcing a dump and then utilizing the goaltender and the player positioned deep in their own end to move the puck out of the zone quickly.

The game plan thus far has been to let goalie Dwayne Roloson see the puck on the first shot, focus on limiting the Caps’ ability to possess the puck in the offensive zone and then either clearing pucks or bodies out when there are rebounds. Roloson has made just about all the stops that he should make to this point in the series, but he’s by no means stolen either game. In fact he has left a ton of rebounds, but Washington has been a step slow creating traffic in front and getting to second and third chances.

While you can credit the Bolts defensively for making it difficult for the Caps to enter the zone with control, Washington has yet to adapt its style and has not shown the commitment down low and in front of the net that it did against the Rangers. Tampa does not have a particularly mobile defensive group, and the Caps can throw speed at you from all angles with guys like Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Jason Chimera, Marco Sturm, etc., so the Bolts’ strategy makes sense. And to their credit, they have stuck to it. But Washington hasn’t really done much to force them out of that style.

The Caps need to take a page out of the Rangers book and get more physical. Any time a team is sitting back and being passive, you want to make them turn their backs to play the puck and fear physical contact. Take away their time and space and create turnovers. For most of Game 2, Washington utilized a hard dump. More times than not Roloson would intercept the puck and get it to the first man back who would then move it without fear of being hit. While this did not always result in a clean break out, it did prevent the Caps from cycling down low and working from behind the net where they have shown that they can be successful.

With three stationary players at the blue line, a softer dump that to the same side of the ice in which the player dumping the puck or another player can use his speed to get around the high defender and create a situation where the player retrieving the puck has his back to the approaching forecheckers is ideal. A few big hits early in this scenario will cause the Lightning to become uncomfortable and speed up their decision-making process. Ultimately this will lead to turnovers and give Washington the ability to possess the puck down low. For this to work there has to be a commitment to finishing checks, working hard down low and crashing the net. Sounds like playoff hockey to me.

A similar approach might be necessary on the power play. Heading into the second round it appeared as though the Caps had ironed out some of the extra-man issues that plagued them this season, and their penalty kill, which ranked second in the NHL, also was up to the task in the opening series. At worst the special teams matchup vs. the Bolts figured to be even. Instead, Tampa has managed to break through for a couple power-play markers while holding the Caps scoreless in 11 extra-man opportunities.

Tampa has been extremely aggressive on the penalty kill, forcing Washington’s point men, usually Ovechkin and Green, to make quick decisions and dangerous touch passes near the blue line. The Lightning put a ton of pressure on the strong side of the ice, often sending three players in that direction in an attempt to eliminate quick give-and-go passes that can lead to the defense being outnumbered in scoring position. The Bolts are taking a calculated risk, much like a blitzing team in football, that they can put enough pressure on the player with the puck that he won’t be able to make an accurate cross-ice pass that leads to a scoring opportunity. So far their calculations have been correct.

Again, it makes sense that if Washington can work the cycle down low and reverse the puck against the Bolts’ over-pursuit it should create better scoring opportunities. The Caps also have performed better on the power play in recent weeks when they enter the zone with speed as if it’s a five-on-five situation, generate a shot on the rush, pounce on the rebound and then set up.

“I think that if we can get more pucks to the net and maybe do a better job recovering the puck after our first shot to create more second and third chances around the net it would be something that could benefit us,” winger Mike Knuble said.

On the flip side, the Caps’ normally aggressive penalty-killing unit has played much more passively thus far, allowing Tampa to go 2-for-9 with the extra man. Those two goals are difference-makers in a series as closely contested as this one.

“We have to be better,” Brooks Laich said. “Guys on both units have to be accountable. I’m on both units, so I’m accountable both ways. The goal we gave up the last game was a (former) 50-goal scorer making a great shot from outside the circle. If that’s the best chance we are giving up I think we are doing a pretty good job. On the power play we have to make sure we are not going off on our own page and trying to do too much on our own. Bruce spends a lot of time cutting up video and pre-scouting the penalty kill to give us options and looks on the power play. We just have to stick to that a little bit more.”

So while Potvin’s tone might have been a little strong for a team that outshot its opponent 37-23 the last time around, the mood around the Caps' locker room basically echoes his sentiments. Maybe the harshness with which he speaks is the kick in the butt he says Washington needs to rally.

“We lost two games at home, and obviously we didn’t want to do that,” Matt Bradley said. “We’re down two games and not where we want to be, but we’ve battled back before, especially this year with all the adversity, so there’s no reason we can’t come back. We just have to win a couple games on the road like they just did and then come back and win a couple at home. “