The moment Justin Schultz scored the go-ahead goal over the New York Islanders on Thursday must have been an affirming moment for head coach Peter Laviolette considering the goal was by design. The specific play may not have been, but Schultz's goal was a reflection of a crucial part of Laviolette's system that is already starting to pay dividends.
When Laviolette took over as head coach, one change we expected to see was the defensemen play more aggressively in the offensive end of the ice. For fans who watched the Caps blue line get constantly dragged out of position and give up numerous odd-man rushes last season, you might have been worried. But what the young season has shown us thus far is that an aggressive defense primarily means the freedom to join the rush. That's exactly what happened on Friday.
"It's always important for us to step up and be an option on entries and breakouts," Schultz said.
When Brenden Dillon corralled a puck behind the net, Schultz did not retreat to the goal line on the opposite side in case Dillon needed to pass it off to him. Instead, Schultz skated in front of his own net, took the pass and wheeled up ice. Joined by Garnet Hathaway and Carl Hagelin, the Caps had a 3-on-3. Schultz passed the puck off to Hathaway who took it into the offensive zone, but Schultz continued pushing with the rush. He had a step on Leo Komarov and Hathaway returned him the puck which Schultz shot into the back of the net.
“[Dillon] did a great job on the breakout there, he had good patience and allowed me to find the space," Schultz said. "He made a good pass and kicked it to [Hathaway] and he did a great job finding me driving and was lucky enough for it to find the back of the net.”
Under the new system, the Caps' blue line has scored five goals about 21-percent of the team's total. Last season, Washington's defense chipped in about 11-percent.
After a few games to adjust, Schultz suddenly seems to be thriving.
"Justin, to me, really in the last two or three games, has really tried to put the skating part of his game and the attack part of his game, and you can see it as he comes out of the defensive zone and he's joining the rush," Laviolette said. "Tonight's goal was a perfect example, just getting involved in the play."
The strength of Schultz's game is not his defense, but his puck-moving and the offense he can generate from the blue line. He is a player seemingly tailor-made for the new system and he now has four points in his last two games.
"He's one of those players that I think uses his speed and uses his skating to create offense and I think I've noticed it more in the last couple games, but that's probably to be expected as well," Laviolette said. "When you throw stuff on a table in training camp, it takes a little bit to sort it out and you have to have some video meeting and talk about things. I thought he did a really good job of trying to play the style that we want to play."