How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Jeff Carter put it simply on Thursday night, explaining how his team won their game versus Calgary: “It’s simple hockey, really. It starts below the puck, and you don’t cheat on defense to get offense.” That system seems like it demands speed, because if you’re back an extra foot or two on D, you’ve got more ground to cover than you would if you were, as he said it, “cheating” toward offense.

So my main question, with Washington in town to play the Kings Saturday evening, was simple: how would this plan work against the powerful and tricky Alex Ovechkin? Would the Kings contain him? Would his aggressive style of offensive play put them a step further behind the play in terms of scoring chances or shots?

Numbers-wise, no. The Kings stormed out with 14 shots in period one to the Capitals’ eight. The second slowed down some, but it was still 12-6, LA’s favor. And by that time, the score was 1-0. The Caps did come on in P3, with 14 shots to LA’s four.

But all those numbers don’t tell everything. The Great 8 often caused disruption by his whirling speed and aggressive forcing of mistakes. Early in the game, he harassed both defensemen at the same time, Doughty and Regehr, and forced a turnover. The defense picked it up again and got it out of harm’s way, though.

A few shifts later, he chased a puck back to his own end, then as it worked up the ice, his teammate, Backstrom, forced a turnover at the LA blueline and handed it to Ovechkin. He then gave it back to Backstrom, who went to the net and was hooked, resulting in a Washington power play.

On that chance, Ovechkin was everywhere. He got a one-timer from the left point off the faceoff. A slapshot. He then got another and winged a high wrister. Then he made a check on the boards and passed the puck backwards through his legs to his right point. Ovechkin got the puck back and wristed it once more. (He sure shoots wide a lot.) Off the next faceoff, he was again at the left point, and he passed it to the low slot. Shortly after, he turned it over on a pass that the Kings’ Regehr grabbed.

Sometimes, his aggression cost his team. He went out of his way to hit Drew Doughty. They both fell, and Ovechkin was caught up-ice while the Kings went down to his end. That was in the first. In the second, he seemed a bit lost at even strength in his own end. His singular goal is to turn the puck up ice, and he’s always cheating, to go back to Carter, a step or two to that side. This is perhaps a way to account for his plus-minus rating of ten despite having 33 goals (coming into the game; he lost one during the contest).

Contrast that to Toffoli, who entered Valentine’s night with 18 goals and a plus-19 rating. Even better, Ovechkin’s teammate Eric Fehr, a right winger, who had 16 goals and was also plus-ten. Troy Brouwer had the same goal total and was plus-seven.

But if you can say one thing about Ovechkin, it’s this: he disrupts everything when he’s on the ice. Sometimes that means he’s good. Sometimes, it means that he’s bad. But things don’t work according to plan when he’s out there, and the Kings are a team that likes a plan.

In period two, he got a turnover at his own blueline and took the puck up ice. Later, he hit Muzzin behind the LA net and got a puck out to the front. Later, still, he took it out of his zone, forced it behind the LA net, and then recovered it there.

Still, sometimes, the Kings did things textbook perfect. Early in P1, for instance, when the King-Carter-Toffoli line was on versus Ovechkin, they got the puck out of their own and down the ice. Toffoli got a shot on goal on the play.

In P2, the “That Seventies Line, Part Deux,” perhaps the longest moniker for a trio in NHL history, scored a goal that exactly corresponded to Carter’s directive. The way it went was this: Carter dug it out from behind the net and put it to the slot. King ended up scoring while Toffoli got a touch on it for the other assist. That’s working to plan.

Later in the period, Ovechkin was checking them, a term that in describing this shift, I use loosely. He was low in front of his net, kind of in No Man’s Land, not really effectively covering anyone. Yet he erased that mistake when the puck went up ice; he was at the left boards to grab it. He then made a cross-ice pass in the LA zone, but saw the Kings gobble the puck up.

At the end of P2, Regehr forced Ovechkin into the boards between the benches, and then in retaliation, Washington’s Brouwer came over and gave Regehr a cross-check. Nothing came of it, but the message that you don’t abuse this guy was clear. On the other hand, the Caps don’t retaliate when Ovechkin is checked cleanly, because he gets hit a lot, just as he hits a lot. It’s just a part of his being always involved in what’s going on. On that note, he had four hits, second only to Brooks Orpik for the Caps.

Period three saw the Kings open up a 3-1 lead on a goal that was exactly to Carter’s description, though not produced by his line. At the goal line in the corner in the LA end Williams dug out a puck. Brown took it down ice on the left side and put it to the center for Stoll. Now, it did take a lucky bounce to reach Stoll’s stick, but by that time, he was in front of the net and could redirect it past the netminder, who, by the way, was Braden Holtby.

Ovechkin got one goal on the evening, a one-timer that went into the only inch it could have on Quick’s right side. This was early in period three, at even strength. His icetime was over 21 minutes, almost evenly spread between the periods. And he registered five shots in total, plus four misses and four attempts blocked. So the Corsi people would have him involved in 13 shot attempts, far and away the most for his team.

By way of explaining the game, Barry Trotz said, “they put pucks deep and held onto them. Really ground you down a little bit. We had I thought, didn’t have enough urgency in our game. They had more. We had too many people that were not as urgent as they were.” He indicated that this would be remedied by some lineup changes for the next game, which is Sunday evening in Anaheim, an early start, 5pm. “You create your own luck. They worked really hard, and I thought they deserved to win,” he said.

He added something that could speak to Ovechkin’s place on the team. “We’re not good enough to just rely on two or three people to get it done. We need the group of 20.” Then he promised the aforementioned changes. “Some guys have made the decision a little bit easier, some a little harder. So I’ll think about it on the way over there.”

The Kings last played Washington on February 3, losing 4-0. Fans called this Valentine’s Day game revenge, though Dwight King denied that as a sentiment. “A little bit of renewed focus,” he said about the so-called “blue paint goals.” He furthered it, “I wouldn’t go so far as revenge. It’s a team that we don’t play a ton. Right now we’re just trying to kill off points. We don’t worry too much about who we’re playing.”

Observers who like clichés might say that “the fellows would sleep well tonight.”  It was a tough game, with a ton of chances on each net. Both goalies were at least good. Quick was great, and he was rewarded with the first star designation.



The team now awaits another powerhouse, the Lightning, who show up to play Monday evening.

Please check out various of my books. The newest is Facing Wayne Gretzky.