Maturing Caps learning to play defence

Not too many teams are hotter than the Canadiens right now, who have won seven of their last 10. One of them is the Capitals, winners of eight straight and 10 of their last 11. The Caps come into the Bell Centre on Tuesday and, as most fans know, they have become a different team than the run-and-gun machine that the Canadiens frustrated to elimination last spring in the playoffs.

Seven of their eight wins have been one-goal victories and they’ve had the odd game where they still show off their offensive chops, like their 5-0 shutout of Edmonton last Wednesday. They also moved the puck well in their 4-3 OT win against the Blackhawks on Sunday. And they’ve done it without top defenceman and power play quarterback Mike Green, out with a head injury since Feb. 25. They’re also missing centre Nicklas Backstrom, out for the past three-pus games with a broken thumb. His place on the top line has been taken by rookie Marcus Johansson.

The steps to this transformation were not very easy for Washington, who
had their struggles earlier in the season and only intermittently showed
how well they could play good team defence and make adjustments when
necessary (the Winter
Classic game was one of those early efforts that worked well
). Now,
they seem to be comfortable in their new skin.

“I think we all had to face the fact that we’re not what we used to
be,” winger Mike Knuble told The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera on
Monday. “Guys are finally accepting it that while we’d like to score a
lot more we are going to play in tight games. There was a little while
there where it felt like we were one mistake away from winning or losing
a game – that’s a lot of pressure to play under.

“But it kept us from sliding and slacking off. When you win, a lot
things slide under the rug; mistakes are overlooked. When the line is so
fine between winning and losing now, the coaching staff doesn’t let us
get away with things we might have in the past.

“You can be just as proud of your team winning 2-1 as you are when it
wins 7-5,” Knuble added. “There are a lot of players on our team that
have scored all throughout their lives. Then this season, when it wasn’t
so easy to score, they had to ask themselves: ‘What are you going to
do? How are you going to help?’”

Knuble noted that the Caps young core, are “not just kids anymore with the let’s-fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants
attitude and no responsibility.” And they made a few
significant additions at the trade deadline to help them grow up. Getting Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm and Dennis Wideman added some maturity to their room.

First and foremost is Arnott, a Stanley Cup champion who played under some pretty good coaches — Pat Burns, Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz — and learned the value of a two-way game. He’s also been a captain in Nashville and understand leadership. It’s probably no accident that he has been spending lots of time with Alex Ovechkin, who wears the “C” for Washington.

““He’s got a lot of questions, and he’s a great guy,” Arnott told Dan Steinberg, who blogs for The Washington Post. “He’s
one of the superstars in our league, that really wants to win and wants
to learn from older guys and take everything in he can. And it’s a
pleasure playing with stars like that, because a lot of guys will think
they’re either too good for the game or too good to learn. And this guy
here just wants to suck all the knowledge he can, and he just wants to
win. And when you get a guy like that, it’s a pleasure.

Arnott has also cozied up to the Caps other talented Russian, Alexander Semin, who is far less gregarious than Ovie. 

You know what, I’ve talked to him a lot,” Arnott said. “I got to know a
little bit about him just coming here from other guys, that he was a
little different cat. He’s very very talented, but for me, I just don’t
know if guys took the time enough to talk to him enough and make him
feel a part of everything, and also get on him when he does things
wrong. I think he needs the corrections and a little more discipline in
his game, and he needs to know how important he is to this team to win.
So it’s just little things. I’ve been talking to him every day, and
communication between linemates, it just helps a lot.”

That’s leadership. On the ice, Arnott has had a big impact on Semin, who is his linemate and can go through his Alex Kovalev-enigma moments. In the seven games since Arnott joined the Caps, Semin has three goals, three assists and is a plus-5.

Arnott also has taken over from Ovie playing the point on Washington’s power play, which frees up Ovie for being creative along the half boards and down low. It may be starting to pay off; their PP has gone 3-for-9 over the past three games after a lengthy drought. Ovechkin finally scored his first power play goal on home ice this season against the Oilers last week.

The other newcomer having an impact for the Caps, at least for the moment, is goaltender Braden Holtby, who was named First Star in the NHL last week with a 4-0-0 record, a 1.05 GAA and a .965 save percentage with one shutout. In 12 games on the season, the 21-year-old Saskatchewan native is 8-2-2, 1.95 and .931.

Goaltending hasn’t been a Caps strength since the days of Oleg Kolzig, so if Holtby turns out to be the real thing, that will solve a big problem for them. Holtby is an athletic goalie with good size at 6-foot-1. He handles the puck well. His lateral mobility is still developing, but with the team playing good team defence in front of him, he’s not facing as many difficult chances as some Caps goalies of the past.

The Caps have two other fairly good young goalies in Semyon Valamov (who has been out with a knee injury since Feb. 20, which prompted Holtby’s recall from Hershey) and Michal Neuvirth. Coach Bruce Boudreau is going to have to decide soon which goalie will be his playoff starter.

Holtby’s the hot guy but has only those 12 games in the NHL to draw on. Varlamov has been the guy the last two seasons (along with the departed Jose Theodore) but he may not be healthy in time. Neuvirth has more experience than Holtby, but no Stanley Cup experience, although he was the goalie for the Hershey Bears back-to-back Calder Cup championships the past two years.

Here’s how the Caps could line up against the Habs Tuesday:

Ovechkin-Johansson-Knuble
Sturm-Arnott-Semin

Chimera-Laich-Fehr
Hendricks-Gordon-Bradley

 Alzner-Carlson
Schultz-Wideman
Erskine-Hannan

 Holtby
Neuvirth


17 Comments

  1. HNS says:

    Habs will make Caps suck again.


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