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.”