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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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How to watch classic Capitals games this week on NBC Sports Washington

How to watch classic Capitals games this week on NBC Sports Washington

If you just can't get enough iconic Caps games during quarantine, then NBC Sports Washington is the place for you.

All week long beginning Monday, April 6, NBC Sports Washington will be airing classic Capitals games, including multiple comebacks and culminating with the five games against Vegas in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

The games leading into the postseason re-air will include multiple memorable finishes from the 2019-20 season.

Of course, if you make it that far, you certainly won't want to miss the re-airing of the Capitals championship parade that follows.

Here's a rundown of all the games airing this week on NBC Sports Washington:

Washington Capitals at Vancouver Canucks

Date: Monday, April 6
Time: 8 p.m.
Original Game: October 25, 2019

Backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov had a rough day in net, allowing five unanswered goals in quick succession from the end of the first period into the second. But Evgeny Kuznetsov broke the Caps' drought in the final second of the second period, sparking the team to a remarkable four-goal comeback.

The Caps would eventually win in a shootout, kicking off a six-game winning streak.

Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals

Date: Wednesday, April 8
Time: 8 p.m.
Original Game: November 9, 2019

The game that capped off the Caps' aforementioned six-game winning streak - and extended their point streak to 11 - was an easier win. The Caps pulled ahead early and never looked back, keyed by Backstrom's two-goal day.

Of course, games against the Golden Knights will always have a special place in fans' hearts after the summer of 2018.

San Jose Sharks at Washington Capitals

Date: Thursday, April 9
Time: 8 p.m.
Original Game: January 5, 2020

This was as wild a finish as the Caps have had in a long time. Down 3-2, they pulled Braden Holtby late in the third period, and the Sharks took advantage with an empty-netter. Then, miraculously, the Capitals scored twice in the final 47 seconds of the game to force overtime, where they won the game.

The Caps would have considered themselves lucky just to come away with a point here, and instead, they got two in one of the most memorable finishes in franchise history.

How to watch the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals vs. Las Vegas Golden Knights

All-day Sunday, April 12

Game 1
Time:
9 a.m.
Location: Las Vegas
Original Game: May 28, 2018

The first team in the nation's capital to make even a semifinal run in 20 years, the hype surrounding the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final was immeasurable. The Golden Knights hosted Game 1 with a breathtaking opening ceremony, and the two teams jumped on each other early with a 2-2 first period. 

Washington took the lead 4-3 early in the third period, but Braden Holtby struggled during the frame and the Caps fell 6-4 to fall behind in the series, as they had throughout the postseason run.

Game 2
Time:
11:30 a.m.
Location: Las Vegas
Original Game: May 30, 2018

The Caps fell behind early in the game, but bounced back to steal a close Game 2. Alex Ovechkin scored his first goal of the series, Braden Holtby was superb - including an all-time legendary save - and the Capitals headed home tied 1-1 in the series.

Game 3
Time:
2 p.m.
Location: Washington
Original Game: June 2, 2018

The first home championship game Washington hosted in years, Game 3 was as hot a ticket as you'll ever find.

Holtby was terrific once again, allowing his only goal in the third period. Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded a goal and an assist, and to nobody's surprise, it was Ovechkin who scored the Caps' first home goal of the series.

Game 4
Time:
4:30 p.m.
Location: Washington
Original Game: June 4, 2018

Game 4 was the Caps' biggest explosion. They scored six goals in the game, including three on the power play. Six different players netted goals for the Capitals in a well-rounded effort, boosted by Backstrom's three assists.

After their easiest win of the series, the Caps were riding high up 3-1 heading back to Las Vegas.

Game 5
Time:
7 p.m.
Location: Las Vegas
Original Game: June 7, 2018

The one that needs no introduction, right? After a scoreless first period, the teams exploded for five combined goals in the second period, including a power play goal from Ovi.

Trailing 3-2 entering the third period, the Caps needed someone else to step up, and they got it. Devante Smith-Pelly tied the game midway through the frame, and Lars Eller gave them the Cup-clinching goal a few minutes later.

Holtby held on the rest of the way, and the Capitals became your 2018 Stanley Cup Champions.

Championship Parade

Time: 9:30 p.m.
Original Date: June 12, 2018

What more needs to be said? The Capitals kicked off the great summer of celebration in style, parading through Washington, D.C. and sharing the glory of their title runs during an unforgettable afternoon with thousands of fans.

If you somehow missed this live, you don't want to miss re-living it now.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

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Lars Eller may be the Tiger, but Caps coach Todd Reirden is not about to lump him in with the people from 'Tiger King'

Lars Eller may be the Tiger, but Caps coach Todd Reirden is not about to lump him in with the people from 'Tiger King'

Like everyone during this time of social distancing because of the coronavirus, Todd Reirden is getting some extra time to catch up on some TV. Also like everyone, one of the shows he has watched during the NHL's pause in the season is the Netflix docuseries "Tiger King."

"I did take myself through the 'Tiger King,'" Reirden said on a conference call Monday. "That I did watch. I watched that one on my own. I did not have my wife and son in on that one. I wanted to be prepared for discussion points with the players if they had seen it. So I did watch that. I'll just leave it at that, but I did watch it."

So Reirden has watched it, but just for reference. Right.

"It's just one of those things that you want to be prepared for as a coach because you know they all have watched it and I saw the amount of people that have watched it," Reirden said. "I have not gotten into in-depth discussions but when I do get together with the players one day when things become normal again for us."

While Reirden was diplomatic about what he thought about the people featured in the series, he also made it clear he was not about to compare any of the Capitals players to Joe Exotic or any of the other...colorful characters. That includes Lars Eller.

Eller's nickname, of course, is 'Tiger' after he chose the tiger for his spirit animal in a talk with Tony Robbins. When Reirden was asked Monday if Eller was the team's "Tiger King," Reirden was pretty quick to shut that down.

"Lars Eller, I mean he is our Tiger for sure on our team," Reirden said. "I hate to couple him into the same kind of personality that's going on with the 'Tiger King, 'but certainly he has the name for it. So that's an interesting thought that I need to spend some more time on before I commit to it."

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