I write a lot of game recaps, and those recaps have a section where I summarize all the goals that got scored, and I realized lately I’ve been using the word “rush” a lot in that section. For example, on Tuesday two of the three goals Columbus scored came on the rush, continuing a pattern we’ve been seeing all season.
The Caps have problems with their transition game, and they’re paying for it on defense. Whatever Brian MacLellan does to improve the team between now and the deadline should be paired with fixes to the x‘s and o‘s of Washington’s neutral-zone system.
I mentioned this at the end of January, but Braden Holtby is facing way more rush attempts than ever before. The data below is from Natural Stat Trick. These are all NHL goalies, but Holtby’s seasons are the annotated marks.
Natural Stat Trick defines a rush attempt as “any attempt within four seconds of any event in the neutral or defensive zone without a stoppage in play in between.” Holtby has seen 132 of them, second most by volume, fifth most by rate. Those quick-developing plays are a problem for goalies — they often include more attackers than defenders, the puck is more likely to move laterally before a shot, and the shots can come from more dangerous areas of the ice. Put another way: if you don’t stop the rush, your opponents will get better shot quality. Corsica tells us that the Caps are allowing the third highest shot quality in the league (2.7 expected opponent goals per hour) — behind only the twin disasters of Anaheim and Chicago. Not good company for a playoff team.
But those are just numbers. We’ve got videotape. These rush goals are just from the last couple weeks.
We begin with a total disaster. Tom Wilson misses a hard-around along the boards, allowing Mikael Backlund to carry the puck to center ice. There, Wilson collides with Brooks Orpik as backchecking Chandler Stephenson loses track of the play. Backlund waltzes past Jonas Siegenthaler‘s desperate stick check and scores. This is such a fluky mess; I don’t want to draw any conclusions from it.
TJ Oshie and Alex Ovechkin offer a timid forecheck in the offensive zone, but it’s all a feint. With three Caps committed, Ben Hutton chips the puck into neutral, where Jonas Siegenthaler makes a bad pinch to get blown by at the blue line by Antoine Roussel, who passes to Markus Granlund for a high-danger chance and a layup goal.
Seems to me like unwise aggression from all three forwards plus Siegenthaler left the defensive zone vulnerable.
Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin are way behind the play as the Kings enter the Caps’ zone uncontested. John Carlson skates laterally to take away the pass, but he’s not close enough. Evgeny Kuznetsov fails to tie up Derek Forbort near the goal line, so Austin Wagner gets his shot off before Wilson can stop him.
Ovechkin can’t be seen in the video until the puck’s already in the net.
Before we talk about this one, on January 21, TJ Oshie said this:
Right now, we’re kind of playing the old ‘I got my guy’ kind of thing, saying if this D-man doesn’t beat me up ice, I’m good. But really, we have to come back and help our D and apply pressure to the other team’s forwards and really get back to our game.
So, with that in mind: Tom Wilson and Christian Djoos get their guys, but it’s the same guy, Kyle Clifford, and also they even don’t get him. Clifford sends the puck to Trevor Lewis, who beats Michael Kempny (in position!) to serve Austin Wagner in the paint for another wristshot goal. Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin is completely uninterested in the backcheck, and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s lazy stick check isn’t much better.
The line change from hell. The Ovechkin line doesn’t make a clean zone entry. They immediately turn over the puck and then get off the ice to dodge the minus, screwing over the Eller line in the process. A big stretch pass finds Anthony Duclair at the blue line with just Brooks Orpik between him and the net. Orpik plays it right, but Duclair sinks his shot just as Christian Djoos and Lars Eller skate back into the frame.
The first line gets the puck deep but loses the battle. Alex Ovechkin goes for a high-risk/high-reward check on Ryan Murray, but he can’t get his stuck on the puck. Murray sends a stretch pass to Nick Foligno, who faces no real challenge from Christian Djoos at the blue line. Foligno and Jones exchange passes in the slot, making John Carlson screen his goalie. Holtby didn’t even see it.
Five years ago, Elliotte Friedman interviewed Tim Barnes, who is now a statistical analyst for the Caps. Friedman asks Barnes about what he thinks people get wrong about the sport. Barnes gives a firm answer:
The biggest mistake is separating offensive play from defensive play. “Madness. Both happen at the same time.”
And that’s what we’re seeing above. These are defensive problems, but they are not problems with defenders. Washington forwards are so focused on scoring that they become brazenly uninvolved in team defense, often making risky moves to keep the offense alive — only to fail and sabotage the defense in the process. The defenders are the same — pinching when they should backcheck, trying to be the assist hero when the team really needs a cautious, stalwart role player.
And there is just zero pressure along the Washington blue line. Opponents are waltzing in to the Caps’ zone.
Todd Reirden now faces the biggest challenge of his young career as head coach. He has to purge these high-risk offensive plays, get his forwards involved in the defense, reprogram his defenders to make the safe play, and establish some kind of coherent strategy on the blue line.
That’s the task at hand. Reirden’s efforts would be much better spent reorganizing the team’s neutral-zone strategy than they are punishing players for restraining penalties. Kinda seems like one is driving the other anyway.
Headline photo: Jamie Sabau
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