WASHINGTON – Since Dale Hunter took over as head coach of the Washington Capitals in late November, the Capitals had gone to much different schemes, especially in the defensive zone, where Hunter introduced a man-to-man scheme as opposed to strict zone coverage. Hunter wasn’t just a different voice in the locker room – he was changing the way the Capitals played.
As expected, the new schemes have produced ups and downs throughout Hunter’s short tenure, Washington has had problems at times just clearing their own and transitioning into the offensive zone. On Wednesday night, the Capitals appeared to take a step forward with their efforts in the defensive zone in a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers before an announced 18,506 at Verizon Center.
“It’s up to them on the ice to do the little things like blocking shots, taking a hit on the boards to get [the puck] out of our own end,” Hunter said. “We were very physical on the boards and got pucks out. The team sacrificed their body to win.”
The transition to utilizing a man-to-man scheme during five-on-five situations has been somewhat of a bumpy road for the Capitals (18-15-2, 38 points), who too often have been hemmed into their own zone for extended periods of time. Washington seems to have been caught chasing the opposition across the defensive zone rather keeping the opposing skaters to the perimeter and forcing mistakes with constant pressure, but may have made some strides in the right direction on Wednesday.
“That’s a tough question … considering we’re not in our man-to-man all the time,” forward Marcus Johansson said when questioned of the Capitals’ man-to-man scheme. “Parts of the game, I think we played really good all over the ice and there’s always something to improve. But I think we played the way we were supposed to.
“We played tight and we made it hard for them to get to the net and that’s what we need.”
While the Capitals still struggled at times in the defensive zone – they were caught in their own zone a lot in the third period, surrendering 15 shots – there were improvements made in the defensive zone at other points in the game, leading to scoring chances, especially in the second period, a frame in which the Capitals out-scored the Rangers 2-0.
“We play good defense and that’s how you get scoring chances too,” said Johansson, who scored the first goal of the night for the Capitals. “I think when … we play tight defense we know we’re going to get the chances.”
The Capitals were also held the Rangers (22-9-4, 48 points) scoreless on five power play opportunities, a solid step in the right direction for a Washington squad that is in the middle of the pack in the NHL in terms of killing off penalties. Similarly to five-on-five situations on Wednesday, the Capitals did a better job clearing the zone than in previous games.
“We were moving in a group, we were moving together,” said forward Troy Brouwer, who scored a goal for the Capitals. Washington also received two goals from Alexander Semin, while the Rangers got their goal from Brandon Dubinsky. “Our pressure was timed perfectly between forwards and d-men. We were getting in the lanes and just denying them shots, which, normally they would get through.
“We did a good job of clearing the puck and the couple times that we didn’t, we got ourselves in trouble.”
But improved defensive play can be rendered obsolete in a given game without quality goaltending to go along with it and Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun held up his end of the bargain against the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers. Vokoun made his first start in net since Dec. 13 against Philadelphia, a game in which Vokoun surrendered four goals in two periods before being benched.
On Wednesday, though, Vokoun turned away 31 of the 32 shots sent his way. “He played well tonight,” Hunter said of Vokoun. “They’ve got a lot of good snipers over there; he had to be sharp. And when they did get in, he made some big stops for us.”