Shortly after being hired as head coach of the Capitals, Barry Trotz began watching game tapes of the way his new team played in the final 35 games of last season. One game per day was about all that he could digest.
And what stood out to him during those days in front of his TV?
“A very big team, but you didn’t feel like they always played big,” Trotz said. “Size is an asset and I thought we could play better there. I also thought they only wanted to play one way. You’ve got to win games differently and we talked about doing that and creating ourselves an identity.”
Before this season the Capitals’ identity was rooted in their two stars forwards, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But opponents learned a very simple strategy when facing the Caps. You stop Ovechkin and Backstrom, you stop Washington.
“Our record was horrendous, to say the least,” Trotz said. “This year we won many times without either one getting a point.”
He’s right. Before this season the Capitals were 21-61-15 in the regular season and 3-11 in the playoffs in games when when Ovechkin and Backstrom were held without a point.
Under Trotz, the Caps went 11-8-3 in the regular season and are 2-1 in the playoffs when their dynamic duo is held off the scoresheet, including Monday night’s 1-0 win in Game 3 against the Rangers, when Jay Beagle provided the game’s only offense.
“In the first 20 games we were sitting about a game over .500 [9-8-3] and they were saying, ‘When we did this the other way it was a lot easier,’” Trotz recalled. “And then they started winning. We’d get a point every night.”
The Caps finished sixth in the conference and ninth in the league in hits [2,335] and before long, opposing teams began describing them as a tougher team to play against than ever before.
“I would say heavy,” Trotz said when asked to describe his team’s new identity. “We’re a big team so we want to be heavy on the puck. If we can get to you and separate you from the puck we want to do that. And we can skate pretty well, too. Our speed is still in the top third in the league.”
Changes for New York? While there are no personnel changes expected for the Rangers in Game 4, there may be a few different line combinations.
With the top line of Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Marty St. Louis struggling to find the back of the net [they’ve combined for one goal in the first three games] coach Alain Vigneault could move Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider or Dominic Moore up in the lineup. Hayes saw some time with the top line in place of St. Louis in the third period of Game 3.
“As a coach you’ve got to do what you feel is best for your team,” Vigneault said, “and if at some point I feel any changes need to be made for the benefit of the team I’ll make them.”
“We’ve had some real good looks,” Vigneault said, referring to the Rangers’ 69 attempts at the net in Game 3, 30 of which were stopped by Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “Our execution has been a fraction of a second off. I’m going to bet that our execution can be better and it has to be better tonight. Everybody understands the importance of tonight’s game and we’re ready for it.”
MORE CAPITALS: What's with Ovechkin and those smelling salts?
Here are projected lineups for Game 4:
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Joel Ward
Marcus Johnasson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Jason Chimera
Andre Burakovsky – Jay Beagle – Troy Brouwer
Curtis Glencross – Brooks Laich – Tom Wilson
Brooks Orpik – John Carlson
Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen
Tim Gleason – Mike Green
Braden Holtby – Justin Peters
Scratches: C Michael Latta, D Dmitry Orlov
Injuries: Eric Fehr [upper body, day-to-day]
Rick Nash – Derrick Brassard – Marty St. Louis
Chris Kreider – Derek Stepan – J.T. Miller
Carl Hagelin – Kevin Hayes – Jesper Fast
James Sheppard – Dominic Moore – Tanner Glass
Ryan McDonagh – Dan Girardi
Marc Staal – Kevin Klein
Keith Yandle – Dan Boyle
Henrik Lundqvist – Cam Talbot
Scratches: D Matt Hunwick, D Chris Summers
Injuries: Mats Zuccarello [head, indefinite]