For the Washington Capitals, the last five weeks have been a major adjustment. Because regardless of how Bruce Boudreau coached Washington, his team almost always played a zone coverage in the defensive end of the rink. Whether the focus of the system was offense or defense, that part of it remained the same. It was a constant in an otherwise constantly shifting image of the Capitals.
In addition, there was he fact that a large percentage of the Capitals’ players had been using this style of play for four years under Boudreau. When Dale Hunter was appointed the 15th Head Coach in franchise history at the end of November, he incorporated a defensive system based on man-to-man coverage. Changing from four years of passive, wait-and-see Boudreau defense to the up-tempo, speed-centric defense that Hunter employs predictably caused problems for some Capitals.
“It’s tough,” said defenseman Karl Alzner on December 19th. “Certain changes are easier than others. Man-to-man is tougher. It’s tougher to go from what we were doing, a zone coverage, because it’s pretty much you’re just in your zone and you kind of just move around. Man-to-man makes you work quite a bit harder. Sometimes you just get caught up, with one guy playing a zone and the other a man-to-man. It’s tough to change. You have to make sure you’re on your guy. You can’t lose those battles.”
For much of the first month of Hunter’s tenure, the Capitals were losing those battles.
Struggling to find consistency under a new coach, Washington would post victories over average teams, such as Toronto and Ottawa, lose to average teams, like Colorado and New Jersey, and get blown out of the water by deep, strong teams, like Philadelphia. The team was unhappy. “Guys are struggling,” forward Matt Hendricks said in mid-December. “It’s not fun.”
Recently, however, it seems as though the Capitals are beginning to turn the corner. With wins in four consecutive games and five of their last seven, Washington has handed in strong performances against the Rangers, Nashville, Buffalo, and Calgary. They are beginning to believe that they can execute a system that their roster was not built to execute.
The keys behind it? A short memory and, of course, the ability to carry out the system on a nightly basis.
“We try to forget about the games where we didn’t do it,” said Hendricks after a 4-1 victory over the Rangers on December 27th. “Ones where we didn’t play so well, we didn’t execute. We know we have it in this room. We showed it last night, and now it’s just that consistently that we’ve talked about all season.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Washington’s recent success has ridden on finding that consistency, hard work, and finally becoming accustomed to and confident in Hunter’s new system.
“I think we’re quicker to recognize where our guys are,” Alzner said. “We’re more assertive. You see your guy and you go to him right away, instead of second-guessing. It’s also just that experience is big, starting to figure out where you’re supposed to be. Kind of like muscle memory. We’re still making a few mistakes here and there, and it’s just making sure that we don’t give up big mistakes, and it’s just little ones that we can get back.”
Forward Marcus Johansson, who has accustomed well to Hunter’s new system because of his speed and vision, also is quick to recognize its impact on the Capitals’ success. “Everybody’s buying into everything and working very hard,” he said following Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Calgary. “That’s the most important thing. No one is taking it easy. Everyone is working their hardest every night, and that’s going to play a huge part in this.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin feels the same way. “We just feel very good about our game right now,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. For a player who’s strengths are not necessarily suited for this defensive method, that kind of endorsement should serve as a good indicator.
And though this recent run of success is certainly nice, the road ahead is much tougher. The Capitals have two dates with the Pittsburgh Penguins remaining this month, as well as clashes with the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins and two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. There is still work to be done.
“You have to feel things out,” said Alzner. “You don’t want to get too overconfident. You have to remember that we’re not way above everybody. We’ve won [four] games, it’s nothing that huge yet. So we have to just bear down from the start, every game. We need to win all these games.”
Alzner is right. The Capitals do have to win these games.
With the way they’ve been playing lately, they just might find a way to do it not only now, but also in the spring. Wouldn't that be something.