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Caps want their defensemen playing like forwards


Caps want their defensemen playing like forwards

Before Saturday night’s 7-3 rout of the Colorado Avalanche, it had been nearly 23 years since four Capitals defensemen scored in the same game.

That came back on Dec. 4, 1992 when Al Iafrate, Kevin Hatcher, Sylvain Cote and Paul Cavallini scored in an 8-4 win over the New York Rangers. Hatcher and Cote actually scored two goals in that game.

To put that in perspective, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov were both 16 months old at the time. Saturday night’s other blue line goal scorers, John Carlson and Karl Alzner, were 2 and 4.

“I was probably trying on my first pair of skates,” Schmidt said.

“I was in kindergarten,” Alzner said. “’I was probably throwing blocks around and not thinking too much about hockey. When you really think about it, it’s pretty crazy to have four D men score in one game.”

Not if you’re Caps assistant coach Todd Reirden, who arrived in Washington last season with a mission of making the Capitals’ blue line just as difficult to defend as their forwards.

“If you’re (an opposing) defenseman, because the game is so fast, if they’re seeing four players come at them instead of three, it causes them to defend differently,” Reirden said. “You might back up a step to assess and now all of a sudden Nick Backstrom gets an extra second when he enters the zone because of the appearance of four guys on the attack.”

For some offensive-minded defensemen, like Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Orlov, joining the rush comes naturally. But to others, particularly Karl Alzner, it requires a change in mindset.

“They’ve given us a lot of freedom to do it,” said Alzner, who set career highs last season with five goals and 21 points. “You need to have the attack from all five guys. You can’t just let your forwards do it.”

There is a catch, however. When a defenseman joins the rush – and on several occasions during a game a Caps defenseman will lead the rush – a forward needs to recognize that and fall into a defensive position.

“All our D are very capable of getting up in the rush,” Caps goaltender Braden Holtby said. “That’s not what we’re worried about. It’s the support and teaching our forwards how to play defense when our defensemen get caught down low.

“Our forwards are getting better at playing defense a little bit more. It’s a hard thing to ask them to do, but if we can get everyone comfortable in that situation it’s extremely effective. The Rangers do it very well and if we add it, it’s another element we have.”
Through 19 games this season the Caps’ defensemen have contributed 11 goals and 32 assists for 43 points.

The Caps rank sixth in the NHL in points by defensemen, behind the Stars (54), Canadiens (52), Predators (52), Wild (47) and Bruins (44). They rank tied for fifth in goals by defensemen behind the Predators (17), Wild (12), Coyotes (12) and Hurricanes (12).

“The teams with the best records are the ones with defensemen getting up in the play and contributing to the offense because it’s hard to play against,” Alzner said. “I hate when D jump up in the play. You never know if you’re getting three, four five guys on the rush. It’s tough to play defense that way.”

Before coming to Washington, Trotz relied on his defensemen in Nashville, primarily Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Roman Josi, to provide a big chunk of the Predators’ offense. He wants that to be more of the Caps’ identity, even with Mike Green gone.

“That’s part of the new NHL,” he said. “That’s something I always had in Nashville and I know it was a philosophy that Pitt had and Todd brought that. I know from watching all the (Capitals) games the year before (I was hired) the D was not as active in the offensive zone. That was maybe a little bit a part of the personnel back there.

“But that’s where the NHL is. Teams are so good at tracking that if you don’t get your defense involved either with transitional plays and beating forwards up the ice or D dives or D cycles that create indecision, then it’s harder to score.”

The Capitals’ infusion of offense from the back end could make nights like Saturday more frequent. At least that’s how Schmidt sees it.

“I’m actually really looking forward to the next one,” he said. “I‘ve got a feeling it might be soon.”


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Can Pittsburgh's past be a goalie rotation blueprint?


Can Pittsburgh's past be a goalie rotation blueprint?

It’s happened. The Caps no longer seem to have a No. 1 goalie anymore, they have a No. 1 and 1a.

That’s right, we have a goalie rotation in Washington.

“There's no sense riding one,” Barry Trotz said after practice on Monday. “[Braden Holtby] is coming back and looking better every game and [Philipp Grubauer] played pretty well for a long stretch so why not have both of them going?”

Grubauer got the start Sunday in Philadelphia and Holtby is slated to get the start Tuesday against the Dallas Stars. After that we will have to wait and see.


Trotz has no layout for which goalie he wants to start and when in the remaining ten games. He is not thinking about each goalie splitting five games or which one he wants to use more.

Nope. Trotz has just one thing on his mind. It is all about who starts the next game, that’s it.

“I think you just go with a guy that's hot at the time and your team feels comfortable with and go from there,” Trotz said.

So where does this leave the goaltending situation when it comes to the playoffs? A goalie rotation is all well and good in the regular season, but he has to have one starter for the postseason, right?

Not necessarily.


When Trotz was asked if he philosophically believed in having one starter for the playoffs, Trotz initially said he would not answer, but then said, “Why don't you ask Mike Sullivan what he thinks.”

Sullivan, of course, is the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins who has led his team to a Stanley Cup in each of the past two seasons despite turning to both goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray in both seasons.

While Pittsburgh’s goalie rotation was largely based on injury, however, it still provides an example of how using both goalies can work in the playoffs and that seems to be the path the Caps are headed on at the moment.

Said Trotz, “You just have to go with your gut who you think is going to get the job done.”

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NHL Power Rankings: The home stretch

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NHL Power Rankings: The home stretch

We are down to the home stretch. Only 10 games remain in the Capitals' regular season. Those 10 games will ultimately decide if the Caps finish in first place in the Metropolitan Division and who they will play in the first round of the playoffs.

Washington currently sits in first place in the division, two points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and four points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers. Of those 10 remaining games, only three come against teams currently in playoff position. The most critical of these comes on April 1 when the Caps travel to Pittsburgh in a game that could ultimately decide the division.

The Caps still hold a narrow lead in the standings, but where do they stand in the rankings? See this week's updated NHL Power Rankings here.