Adjusting to The Trap--The Players' Reactions

Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, January 08, 2011 | , , | 4 comments »

Earlier this week, CBC columnist Elliotte Friedman devoted several paragraphs to Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau implementing elements of the trap into his systems.  It's worth the read as a set-up to this column.

At practice this week, I had a chance to catch up with several Caps players to ask them about the adjustments that have been made to the system and the challenge implementing the trap into Coach Boudreau's preferred style of play.

The reactions, as you will no doubt tell, were varied.  Some players shrugged it off; some embraced it.  Either way, it's hard to argue with the success the Caps have had employing the neutral zone clogging trap, especially in games where they've secured a lead--and held on for the desired result.

According to Friedman's column, after the 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Dec. 12 Boudreau made the decision and informed his team the next practice that he was going to introduce elements of the trap into the game plan.  Since then, the Capitals have taken 13 points in nine games, with just one regulation loss, and just 15 goals against total in those nine games.

Granted, the penalty kill has been fantastic during that time frame as well, but 5-on-5 scoring has been limited to 10 goals in their past nine games.

It may not be the style Boudreau wants to play all the time, but it's working. 

The Caps have some excellent skaters on this team, and have to this point employed a more aggressive forecheck, leaving each player to have a man-to-man assignment.  Now, playing with the lead, the team falls back into more of a "zone" defense, shutting down passing lanes through the neutral zone, looking for turnovers there instead of up the ice.

So, how hard has it been to implement the new system?

"At the time, we needed it," Boudreau said.  "We weren't scoring, but we weren't defending really well either. It's an easy way to play.  It's not, quite frankly, the way I would want to play, but you look at what you have and where you're going and implement whatever you can do to succeed.  So it's worked, so far."

On to the players' reactions.  I'll let their words speak for themselves, but the overall impression seems to be that it's been good for the team.

Jeff Schultz: "I think it's been good.  It forces teams to go through five guys instead of three or four. I think teams are dumping the puck in a little more and the possession is more in our hands with going back and moving up quickly."

Tom Poti: "It's been a little different.  I think it's worked for us really well.  When we get up on teams, get a couple goal lead, I think it's worked really well. We're not as aggressive as we used to be to where if one guy makes a mistake, the other team has a really good chance on net, so this way if somebody makes a mistake up front there's a couple guys to back him up and it's worked out well for us in a couple games that we did have some big leads, we were able to hold onto them by clogging up the neutral zone."

Jay Beagle: "It's a little bit of a different mindset.  Before it was just 'go, go, go' in the neutral zone, in our control forechecking, now it's a little more of a patient game and closing up the neutral zone and making it harder on teams to get odd-man rushes.  It's kinda been nice, couple tweaks here and there fixing up the neutral zone.  I really like the new system and seems to be working really well, making it harder on teams."

Eric Fehr: "I wouldn't really call it a trap, but we are trying to be a little more conscious on the defensive end in our efforts, and it's something I think we needed to do.  We were getting broken down a little bit too much with guys entering our zone and it's great for us to have a couple more guys back and give away a few less opportunities."

Jason Chimera:  "We're working it into the program.  It's something we've all played, everyone's played in this system at one point growing up so it's not anything different than a lot of guys have played.  Bruce has played a different system before, but the good thing is if we master both we can switch back and forth and give teams different looks every game.  So I think that's the good think about it.  When we need to pressure a little bit we can switch to our other forecheck so it's been good."

Mike Knuble: "When you go through tough times it kinda forces you to change.  You really have to look in the mirror, have to look at your team if you're going to be doing the right things and how you stack up with the rest of the league. It's one of those things that the rest of the league is doing and other teams have been effective at it, and Bruce, he'll admit, he's never trapped in his life. He's never been a trap teacher, he can barely teach it, you know? But the guys have taken to it and I think the biggest thing it we've been getting results. Guys will buy in if you get the results."

I think Knuble's last sentiment is the take-away in all this.  "Guys will buy in if you get the results."

The Caps under Bruce Boudreau have been a high-energy, offense first juggernaut.  Introducing elements of a completely different style of hockey than what he's always preached is a gutsy move, especially making the transition in the middle of the season like he has. 

But desperate times call for desperate measures.  Following that 7-0 loss to the Rangers, Boudreau must have felt it absolutely necessary to shake things up on the ice, and probably in the room as well.  The switch gave everyone--the coaching staff included--something else to think about instead of the losing streak, and the Winter Classic, and the HBO cameras following them around all the time.

I don't think we can anticipate the Caps making a 180 degree turn in philosophy, becoming a defense first, conservative squad.  It's not in Boudreau's--or his star player's--nature.  But adaptation is critical in an 82-game regular season marathon, and the new wrinkles Boudreau has implemented give opposing coaches one more thing to think about when game-planning for the Caps.

After practice this morning, Washington Capitals GM George McPhee candidly spoke with reporters about the World Junior Championships, HBO's 24/7 and the Winter Classic.


"On a personal standpoint, it may be the most fun I've ever had as a manager and maybe the most fun I've ever had in my hockey life. It was just a fabulous experience, it was sort of a 'Field of Dreams' thing: Build it and they will come. Because you show up at this massive stadium and there's 70,000 people there, 30,000 are from Washington and that was extraordinary. Even the ride home...on Sunday I drove my family back, there were Caps fans on the way back at the gas stations, at the toll booths, at the restaurants. It was pretty remarkable."
"It felt like a seminal moment for this franchise.  When you hear the crowd yell "Red" and yell  "Oh" during the National Anthem you realize how many people were there -- I know John Erskine mentioned this sort of startled him on the bench, so I'm sure the other players experienced that, 'Boy, we have a lot of people here tonight', and I think the franchise is where other teams come into town and their fans are wearing the jerseys and to walk around Pittsburgh --  every time you turned the corner someone was wearing a Caps jersey. I thought it was a special night and a unique night in many way that really put this franchise over the top in terms of popularity. I think the popularity is unprecedented. And it's a really neat thing to experience."
"It's been a fun team to watch and we have great personalities in that room, and it's really neat that Washington has embraced this team."
ON HBO'S 24/7
"The most important thing here was getting exposure for this game, and I think HBO loved it. I think they got turned on to something really neat with these hockey players and the sport and I think a lot of people around this country and a lot of other countries, if they didn't already like hockey would certainly have a better understanding and appreciation for it."
"When we agreed to do this, we agreed to let them see everything and experience everything. I personally was having a hell of a time during that [eight-game losing streak] and they caught it pretty well. That was exactly how I was feeling. It's not an easy thing to go through, but I guess it makes for good television."
"We're really pleased with all of our players there.  I thought [Russian forward Evgeni] Kuznetsov was one of the better players in the tournament.  I thought that [forward] Cody Eakin was the best player on the ice last night [in the championship game] for Canada and was very good in a lot of the games.  He actually played with an injury throughout the tournament. He played left wing, right wing, center; played on the power play, played on the point on the power play, played on the penalty kill.  I thought [Russian defenseman Dmitri] Orlov was good. I thought [defenseman] Patrick Wey played well for the U.S."
"It sure is nice as a manager to go to tournaments and see talent like that that you know will be playing for you within a year or so. Especially where we're been picking these days, it's usually been late in the first round and finding some of these guys in the later rounds. So it's nice that we're going to have another wave of good young players coming into the team, because that's what keeps you good, makes you good for a long time."

Updates from Thursday Morning Practice

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, January 06, 2011 | , , | 0 comments »

There were a couple of medical updates from Capitals practice this morning:

Alex Ovechkin wore a yellow "non-contact" jersey this morning. He shadowed the top line of Alexander Semin, Nick Backstrom and Mike Knuble, but did not participate in drills. He avoided holding his stick with his left hand.

After practice, coach Bruce Boudreau revealed that Ovechkin had a cortisone shot following the 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay Tuesday night.  Boudreau indicated that the non-specified problem Ovechkin received treatment for may have been bothering him for "a while", and hopefully the cortisone and rest will be enough to get him going again.

Both Ovechkin and Boudreau said he would be fine for Saturday's game against Florida.

Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault also missed practice. Boudreau said Hendricks also had a cortisone shot to an unspecified area and Perreault needed some work to his "facial area" following the broken nose he sustained two weeks ago in Carolina. Both players are expected to go Saturday.

Goalie Michal Neuvirth left the ice before the team participated in sprints, but Boudreau was not aware and did not know any reason why he would not have participated. Semin also did not do sprints, rather took a knee while his teammates finished their skating.

The team spent much of practice working 3-on-2 drills around the net and shooting from the blue line and working on tip drills and creating havoc around the net.

THE RESULT: Two of the top scoring teams in the league played to a scoreless draw through sixty minutes.  Both teams played gritty, tight checking defense and their goalies played superbly as one would imagine in a 0-0 tie.

But breakdowns by all five players in red led to the Tampa Bay Lightning netting the game-winner two minutes into extra time, and the visitors took the extra point from the homestanding Washington Capitals.

The win gives Tampa Bay (24-11-5-53) a one point lead in the divison with one game in hand as the Caps (23-12-6-52) reach the official half-way point of the season.

We'll get the obvious out of the way:  both goalies were terrific, turning away 30-plus shot each.  Semyon Varlamov and noted Caps-killer Dwayne Roloson were outstanding.  Both teams had ample shots and quality scoring opportunities, but the goalies were up to the task.

Roloson has a history of taking down the Caps, and in his first game with Tampa Bay he was still employing his New York Islanders facemask and pads.  But the veteran shone for his new squad, which has struggled all season with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis in net, neither of whom own a save percentage over 90 percent.

Alex Ovechkin was at a loss as to the team's lack of finishing opportunities against Roloson.  “We just didn’t find a rhythm.  We didn’t get rebounds. Their defense played great and he made unbelievable saves a couple of times.”

“I think we played well defensively as a group tonight,” Caps forward Matt Hendricks said. “I don’t think our legs were there to get in on the forecheck and do the little things necessary to put pucks in the back of the net. But defensively I thought we played well.”

"It was a combination of two teams wanting the win tonight.  Neither team seemed to be budging on allowing opportunities.  I guess that's what you'd call 'playoff hockey', and we're as desperate for points as they are."

Which makes the game-winning play that much more hurtful.

It started with Jeff Schultz making a clearing pass up the left side boards... to no one.  Defenseman Pavel Kubina gathered it and brought it into the offensive zone in front of Brooks Laich, who couldn't cut off Kubina so he let him go for Jeff Schultz to pick up.

Instead of standing up the rushing defenseman, Schultz allowed himself to be walked back to the goal line where Kubina dropped the puck to a trailing Vincent Lecavalier, whom Laich failed to defend.

Lecavalier got a weak shot off from the right wing dot that Varlamov couldn't steer to a corner, instead leaving the rebound out into the slot.

Tom Poti, in his first game back from groin trouble, was at the top of Varlamov's crease, and could not react in time to the puck going through the slot, which went straight to Martin St. Louis.  The diminutive forward had raced past Nicklas Backstrom to gather the puck and flick a one timer past a now out-of-position Varlamov, still on his knees from blocking the Lecavalier shot.

Poti watched, helplessly, from his post at the top of the crease.

This was a good, exciting defensive hockey game, one for the purists.  It's just unfortunate that all five Caps broke down on the same play in overtime.

Regardless, coach Bruce Boudreau was succinct in his evaluation after the game.

"We're not scoring a lot of goals.  Thank God we're getting good goaltending and playing solid defense.  Cause we're not scoring a lot of goals."

THE GOOD:  Varlamov.  His defense played well in front of him, getting into passing lanes all night long, but the young Russian is really cementing a hold on the goalie spot for now.  All that can change in one game, but he's only given up four goals in his last four games.

THE BAD: Tom Poti.  He might have played, but he still had trouble skating.  He couldn't get into position all night long, instead relied on reaching and pushing instead of skating to hold position. He simply watched as St. Louis collected the rebound and pushed it past Varlamov, helpless to get into any sort of position to help.

THE UGLY: Alexander Semin.  Last night was another prime example of why the Caps are so squeamish about giving him a long-term deal.  He was, in a word, dreadful.  Spent most of his night floating around, never committing to either side of the ice.  Mis-handled puck at the point on a power play which led to a scoring chance the other way, and fell down trying to make some attempt at defense.

That was a recurring theme for The Enigma.  He fell no fewer than a half-dozen times last night, unmolested.  Let's just hope it was a skate problem.  Yeah, we'll go with that.

Oh, and he had the requisite offensive zone stick penalty, a trip with four minutes to play in the second period.

THE STATS: No goals.

NEXT GAME: Saturday at 7:00 pm against the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center.


3. John Carlson.  Was on the ice every time Steven Stamkos was, and limited the league's top goal scorer to four innocent shots.  Was tough in the corners and got 2:07 of PP time. 
2. Karl Alzner.  See John Carlson. His physical play and positioning was excellent. One needn't be a big hitter to play a physical game.
1. Semyon Varlamov.  Stellar in net once again, allowing no goals on 33 shots over 60 minutes.  Saw another five in OT until his defense finally let him down.

This Was a Dirty Hit?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, January 04, 2011 | , , , | 4 comments »

Go here and look at it for yourself.

It looks to me like Crosby stopped skating and was looking for the end of the period, not at where he was on the ice.

It looks to me like Steckel is leaning forward skating hard to get back into the play.

It looks to me like Steckel even tried to avoid the collision altogether, as he is left arm is away from his body for balance before the contact is even made.

Yes, Sidney Crosby got hit in the head by David Steckel's shoulder.  That much we can all agree on.  I think neutral observers will agree though that this was incidental contact and not the dirty play that several of the Penguins are insinuating it was.

In fact, if it hadn't involved Crosby, we probably wouldn't be talking about it at all.  These kinds of collisions happen in every NHL game.

Maybe they should look at the replay instead of blindly defending their captain.

I guess D.J. King will get a sweater Feb. 6.

GAME 40 RE-CAP: Just Another Two Points

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, January 03, 2011 | , , , , | 3 comments »

THE RESULT:  Just another two points?  Not even close.

It was game that Bruce Boudreau said was "as close to the Stanley Cup as we've gotten" in atmosphere.  "When you see [65,000-plus] people in there -- whether they are booing or cheering -- it's an experince I'll never forget."

"It was more than just a game to everybody.  Don't let anybody fool you."

The official ledger will say the Washington Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in a regular season game played Jan. 1, 2011.  Eric Fehr scored two goals and Semyon Varlamov made 22 saves for the victors, and both mega-stars, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, were kept off the scoresheet.

But Boudreau was right, anyone connected with the game -- on the ice, in the press box, in the stands or watching at home alone or in bar with others -- knows that it was more important than just two points.

These teams, as the award-winning HBO series 24/7 has driven home in its first three episodes, do not like each other.  At all.  The fight between John Erskine and Mike Rupp in the first period was one of the more obvious displays of hatred. 

There were plenty more subtle displays: the constant slashing of skate tops, devestating checking that knocked a pane of glass out behind the Penguins net at one point, Ovechkin getting his face smooshed to the ice by Pascual Dupuis after Ovi "tripped" on the blue line.

There was Crosby getting laid out by an incidental hit by David Steckel at the end of the second period, which drew the ire of Crosby and Pens fans after the game.

And it all came to a boil with 0.6 seconds remaining, when what should have been a final face-off to end the game turning into a mice little scrum, with face washes all around, including Ovechkin and Chris Kunitz squaring off and needing to be separated.

Penguins coach "Disco" Dan Bylsma even put his top fighter, Derek Engellund, out for the final draw in case things got especially nasty, though Erskine tied him up immediately to prevent any real escallation.

The result of all the unpleasantry?  The first time in two years the Winter Classic failed to end with a post-game lineup handshake between the two teams, with the Capitals collected at their blue line waiting as the Penguins marched off the ice under the watchful eye of their captain.

HBO's cameras have gone home now.  But the intense rivalry will continue.  Mark Sunday, Feb, 6 on your calendar for the next edition of hockey's hottest rivalry.

You know both teams already have, whether they will admit to it or not.

THE GOOD:  Semyon Varlamov.  22 saves on 23 shots, many of the bouncing, in-tight variety.  Kept his focus and even showed some emotion at the end, bunny hopping to Ovechkin and Backstrom at the final horn.

THE BAD:  Alex Semin.  Extended his goal scoring drought to an even dozen games, getting just one shot on goal in 12:54 TOI.

THE UGLY:  The weather and ice conditions.  Just a shame that the playing conditions couldn't have been better for this type of stage.  Kudos to the league though for doing what they could under such poor conditions and for re-scheduling so early so everyone could make proper arrangements.

THE STATS: Mike Knuble (9) from Nicklas Backstrom (26) and Mike Green (11) at 6:54 of 2nd (PPG). Eric Fehr (6) from Marcus Johansson (4) and Jason Chimera (7) at 14:45 of 2nd.  Eric Fehr (7) from Jason Chimera (8) and John Erskine (6) at 11:59 of 3rd.

NEXT GAME:  Tuesday at 7:00 pm against Tampa Bay for first place in the Southeast Division at Verizon Center.


3. Jay Beagle.  His hard work and intensity and two scoring chances in the first period set the tone for the lunch pail Capitals Saturday night. (Special Mentions for Jason Chimera (2 A) and John Erskine (assist, TKO of Mike Rupp).
2. Eric Fehr.  He needed a two-goal game as bad as anyone.  "Me and Fehrsie love the outdoors!"  Indeed, Prophet Jason Chimera.
1. Semyon Varlamov.  Not ready to hand him the crown just yet, but the NHL's No. 1 Star of the Week was sharp in poor conditions.  His style and athleticism was much more suited to the pinball game the Winter Classic turned into.

Winter Classic Photos

Posted by Cheryl Nichols | Sunday, January 02, 2011 | , , , | 3 comments »

Here is a quick sample of our photos from the weekend - 4 photos of Ovechkin's "trip over the blue line." There will be more posted in near future. Not too bad from the upper deck (without my 70-200mm telelphoto lens!).

It looks like Dupuis is trying to slam Ovi's head onto the ice!

Photos 2010 © Cheryl Nichols Photography/Caps News Network. All Rights Reserved.