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A more aggressive Caps team is looking for more offense from the defense

A more aggressive Caps team is looking for more offense from the defense

In the 2017-18 season, the Washington Capitals finished dead last in the NHL in shots on goal. While the modern wave of analytics stressed possession as measured by shot attempts, the Caps bucked that trend and elected to focus more on generating high-quality shots even if it meant shooting less. The result was a lot of frustrated fans, but 3.12 goals per game -- good for 9th in the NHL -- and a Stanley Cup.

Since the 2017-18 season, however, the offensive mindset in Washington has changed and that is evident by how much the defense has been involved in the offense this season.

“When you get more pucks on net, it's more chances you're going to get to score,” Dmitry Orlov said.

That represents a significant mindset change from the team just one year ago.

“It doesn't make a ton of sense for me to take a wrist shot from the blue line if there's not a screen,” Matt Niskanen said in October 2018. “Maybe one out of 300, 400 is going in, especially with my shot. You can shoot to create if there's traffic around and stuff, but just in general, shooting just to shoot isn't a good philosophy I don't think. That kind of gets lost in the analytics crowd. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to just waste it."

But an offensive philosophy that places such a high degree of emphasis on high-danger opportunities limits the offensive role of the defense since defensemen are much less likely to find themselves in those high-danger areas of the ice. Most shots from defensemen are going to be the type Niskanen was referring to.

The team has gradually softened its stance since then which has led to more involvement from the defense and more shots.

In the 2017-18 season, Washington ranked 30th in the NHL with 3,607 shot attempts at 5-on-5. In 2018-19, the team improved to 17th with 3,713 5-on-5 shot attempts. It may be a small sample size just 11 games into the season, but the Caps currently rank 16th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts per game (38.3).

One difference is more perimeter shots including from the blue line.

"We're switching more to shooting the puck whenever you have a chance or a lane," Jonas Siegenthaler said. "A couple years ago, you were always looking for the next play or a green shot."

While Niskanen seemed not to be a fan, the defensemen seem to enjoy the opportunity to try to contribute offensively.

"I like that more, personally," Siegenthaler said. "Pretty sure the guys like it too. If the D gets the puck up on the blue line, if he sees the lane he shoots, we have two guys in front of the net. I think the forwards they like that too. It's never a bad play."

But the main tweak to the offense this season is the emphasis on the defensemen to pinch in the offensive zone. Basically the defensemen are encouraged to move up deeper into the zone and join the attack if they have an opening to do so.

"Our style of defense is taking time and space, be hard on people," Michal Kempny said. "You can now short in on the short side, like pinching. It's kind of a little change instead of least season, but I think we are getting more and more comfortable every game and just keep it up."

This change led to Kempny, a player who previously had scored only 11 goals in his NHL career, scoring a goal in his first game after returning from injury. It also is a factor in John Carlson’s offensive surge to start the season. Even a player like Siegenthaler can often be found deep in the zone joining the attack.

"The whole system is more aggressive," Siegenthaler said. "I think somehow it kind of translates to the D-men. You're always moving so you're not afraid to join the rush or go up to the play with the forwards."

"It's a little bit of our aggressive mindset that you've heard me discuss from the beginning of the year," head coach Todd Reirden said at practice Saturday. "As opposed to major, major systematic adjustments, a lot of it's been our mindset. Yeah, there's been some tweaks and some different things there, but it's something that we're able to do this year. ... I think we've kept pucks alive a lot more in the offensive zone and our D are in a spot where they're able to help with keeping those pucks alive."

This philosophy is not without risk. Whenever a defenseman moves up it can leave the team more vulnerable to a quick breakout or counter attack. The players have to be in constant communication so the forwards know when someone has to move back to the blue line in order to compensate for a defenseman moving up.

"We have to have a forward back to cover for them," Reirden said. "I think our forwards have done a really good job of, when our D have been active, of covering for them. It's not perfect yet, but it's something that we're working on. We've obviously given up a couple goals along the way through the learning process of trying to be a little bit more aggressive in that way, but I think the benefits for me outweigh the negatives right now."

The Caps’ began to shift their philosophy last season with more shots on goal. This year, they incorporated a larger offensive role for the defense, one that meshes well with the team’s more aggressive mindset.

Just 11 games into the season, it seems to be working.

Washington ranks third in the league with 3.73 goals per game while Carlson leads the entire NHL with 20 points.

"We're really playing on our toes more, we're using our skating to be more of a factor keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone," Reirden said, "And then whenever we're able to convert on them, that's always a bonus."

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Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Ilya Samsonov had his best NHL performance on Saturday in a big 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Capitals got contributions from players all over the lineup in a big win.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

Everyone is pitching in

Look at Saturday's game and Wednesday's game. Whatever the Caps needed, they were able to get. Against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, they needed a key coach's challenge and the video coaches delivered. They needed someone to take over the game and T.J. Oshie delivered. They needed a big night from the penalty kill and Carl Hagelin and Co. delivered. They needed a response to Boston's tying goal and John Carlson delivered.

Now look at Saturday's game. Ilya Samsonov got the start and he delivered when the Caps had a slow start to the game. The fourth line settled everything down and Alex Ovechkin forced a turnover behind the net to give Washington the lead. The bottom-six scored twice to give Washington control, Oshie scored a quick response goal when Tampa Bay tried to battle back and the penalty kill delivered again.

The Caps are not being carried by Ovechkin, it's not a hot goalie or a dominant blue line, it is a complete team effort and it is extremely impressive to watch.

Samsonov had his best NHL game

We knew Samsonov and Braden Holtby were going to split the weekend's games for the dad's trip. I expected Holtby would get the tougher game in Tampa Bay, but instead Todd Reirden went with Samsonov. The rookie had three brilliant saves in the first five minutes of the game. Tampa Bay was the better team for the first two periods and Samsonov only gave up one goal in those 40 minutes. This was a big boy offense and some big boy hockey. Samsonov was up to the task.

Good penalty kill, too many penalties

The Lightning entered this game with the second-best power play in the NHL. Limiting penalties was a big key to the game for Washington and...they did not do that. The Caps gave up five power play opportunities to Tampa Bay, just daring the Lighting offense to take fire. Tampa Bay was only able to cash in only once.

On the one hand, it's great that the penalty kill is playing so well. On the other hand, the Caps must stop taking so many penalties.

Time to Panik?

I have stressed the importance of patience for Richard Panik who is not only adjusting to a new team, but who had an injury and missed 10 games on LTIR. Now, however, it seems like patience is starting to run out.

Panik played a team-low 8:10 on Saturday. Players who get that little ice time are usually either fourth line players or players who do not contribute to special teams. Panik is supposed to be a penalty killer, but despite five penalty kill opportunities, he registered only 14 seconds of shorthanded ice time.

Panik's offensive struggles have been well documented (he had an assist on Saturday), but if he is not contributing on the penalty kill either...well, that's an issue.

Turning point

Tampa Bay looked like the better team for the first 40 minutes. Thanks to Samsonov, the game was tied at 1 at the start of the third. These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL, but it was Washington's bottom-six that gave them the edge as Lars Eller scored early in the third and Garnet Hathaway added a second goal just 45 seconds later.

Suddenly the Lightning were on their heels after looking in control for the majority of the game.

Play of the game

Just when the Caps took the one-goal lead, Hathaway came swooping in to make it 3-1.

Stat of the game

The Caps' PK had a success rate of only 78.9-percent last season. This is a dramatic improvement.

Quote of the game

John Hathaway, father or Garnet, stole the show between the first and second period:

"I think as parents, we try to teach them like two lessons as kids growing up. It's like, if you can dream it, you can do it and never, never, never give up. The dads are here tonight and I think they're not only so proud of their sons, but they're happy for their sons because they know that they had big dreams, they dared to dream big and they never gave up."

Fan predictions

Hey, two for two.

No Ovechkin goal, but you got the score right.

Eller with a big goal tonight assisted by Panik.

Backstrom had only two, but just a few games removed from returning from injury, he looks like he hasn't missed any time at all out there.

This bit will never get old to me.

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Samsonov weathers the Lightning in shutdown performance

Samsonov weathers the Lightning in shutdown performance

Ilya Samsonov got the difficult assignment on Saturday of playing on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He proved to be up to the challenge with a brilliant performance in net, leading the Capitals to the 5-2 victory, their second win over the Lightning in 16 days.

Here is how Washington won.

Ilya Samsonov

There's no question who the player of this game was. Samsonov was brilliant in this game. He had an immediate impact as the Lightning came out firing. Samsonov robbed Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev all in the first five minutes of the game.

Samsonov did not fade down the stretch either. Tampa Bay dominated in the second period and Samsonov turned aside 10 of the 11 shots he faced. For the game, he stopped 26 out of 28.

The fourth line and top line team up

The Lightning were all over Washington at the start of the game and Samsonov was the only reason Tampa Bay did not take advantage. A really strong shift by the fourth line for Washington seemed to settle everything down. Soon after, the Caps were celebrating a 1-0 lead.

Defenseman Jan Rutta had the puck behind the net. Ondrej Palat came wheeling around for the handoff and Alex Ovechkin saw him coming. As Palat wheeled one way, Ovechkin came charging the other. That forced Rutta to flub the pass and the puck bounced right in front of the net to a wide-open Nicklas Backstrom who fired it into the net.

Incidental contact

Tampa Bay thought they had the tie early in the second when Carter Verhaeghe finally got one past Samsonov, but the goal was immediately waved off for goalie interference.

Mathieu Joseph and John Carlson were battling in the defensive zone when Joseph was skated into Samsonov. He was not necessarily pushed, but he and Carlson battled their way into the Caps' netminder, which did not allow Samsonov the chance to defend against Verhaeghe's shot.

You never know what can happen with a goalie interference call, but in this case the referee got it right. It was no goal for incidental contact and no penalty for goalie interference.

The bottom-six

These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL. But that's not all it takes to win in the NHL and the Caps' showed off their depth in the third period, which really proved to be the difference.

With the game tied at one, Dmitry Orlov made a great play at the offensive blue line to get the puck over to Richard Panik despite the immediate pressure he faced. Panik set up Lars Eller who one-timed it past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Just 45 seconds later the fourth line came streaking down the ice and Brendan Leipsic teed up Garnet Hathaway, who took it in on net and chipped it through Vasileskiy.

Those two quick goals suddenly turned the game on its head. To that point, the Lightning had been the better team. After that, the Caps were dominant.

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