Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
On Thursday night, Adam Oates was back behind the bench at Verizon Center for the first time since being fired at the end of last season. Much has changed since then. On this night, the Capitals were playing with sticks that were familiar to them and their coach was not giving his players the cold shoulder. But the most important change, at least on this night, came on defense. Oates instituted a defense system that required blueliners to give up the puck almost immediately after gaining it. This led to forced passes and a myriad of odd-man breaks against. It turned former Norris Trophy nominees like Mike Green into subject of ridicule. The Capitals defense, on the whole, was very bad.
This year, however, things are different. In offseason, new general manager Brian MacLellan added some much needed balance to the Capitals by signing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to big money deals. New coach Barry Trotz has also freed up its defensemen, allowing them to carry the puck when necessary. This has led to a resurgence for Green, who has 39 points this season. Other blueliners have also chipped in. Through 73 games, Karl Alzner had more than doubled his career high in goals and surpassed his career high in assists.
Against the Devils, Alzner added his fifth goal of the year in a decidedly un-Oatesian way.
Less than three minutes into the contest, with the teams playing even at four-on-four. Alzner picked up a cross-ice pass from Niskanen. Instead of passing it to someone else or letting loose a long range shot, Alzner took advantage of an ocean of open ice in front of him, skating past the hashmarks of the near circle and firing a wrist shot past Cory Schneider. That move was very much not allowed under the previous administration. After Alzner’s goal, cameras showed Oates in obvious displeasure on the bench.
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) March 26, 2015
After the game, Alzner admitted to me that he never would have made that play last season.
“I’m usually a guy that’s always playing it really safe,” he said. “We try to have as aggressive gaps as we possibly can and trust our skating. Staying within a couple feet of their winger is kinda what we want to do and then get on our horse if we have to.”
In addition to the new head coach, Alzner credited his goal to another change in Capitals administration. It was goalie coach Mitch Korn, Alzner told me, who told his players to shoot blocker side on Schneider. He backed up his assertion by showing players video of Alzner’s previous goal against the Devils netminder in December.
“The shot was all Mitch Korn,” Alzner said. “Before every game he tells us where to shoot and what to do and said blocker would be a good option tonight.”
“I said to some of the guys when we were watching the goalie scout: ‘You guys wanna learn how to score against this guy just watch,’ and then my clip came up,” he continued. “That’s literally — I was thinking about it — the first time of all my goals where I’ve actually looked and aimed. I’m dead serious.”
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