WASHINGTON -- On April 24, 2019, the Capitals’ quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions came to an abrupt end. It ended with a double-overtime defeat in Game 7 at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes. It was easy at the time to be dismissive of the loss. After the postseason run the year before, a veteran-laden team simply ran out of gas. It suddenly became harder to dismiss on Oct. 5 when Washington lost its home opener to those same Hurricanes. Then, Carolina dominated the Caps again on Dec. 28 in a 6-4 win.
OK, what gives?
There are a lot of factors that go into every loss, especially in the playoffs, but one constant in all of those matchups was an aggressive forecheck. The Hurricanes come after the Caps’ hard in their defensive zone. It was a major reason they lost in the playoffs and, as the first two matchups clearly showed, it remained a weakness in the new season, a troubling fact considering Carolina is a team Washington could very well end up meeting again in the postseason. Even if they do not, every other team in the league certainly does its due diligence and scouting. If a lowly writer in the press box can see the Caps struggling against an aggressive forecheck, you can bet a scout or opposing coach will be able to see that as well.
But after dropping the first two matchups against the Hurricanes, Washington rebounded. The Caps held on for a 4-3 win in Carolina on Jan. 3, going up 4-1 before a frenetic comeback bid. On Monday, Washington played its most complete effort to date against its budding rival, blanking the Hurricanes 2-0 and limiting them to only 23 shots on goal.
What was the difference? Here are the lessons the Caps can take with them to the postseason if they should meet the Hurricanes again on how to beat the aggressive forecheck?
It sounds simplistic and that’s because it is. The point of an aggressive forecheck is to force bad turnovers and bad decisions from the puck carriers. The Caps have played into that by either taking too long to distribute the puck or panicking and trying to force stretch passes through covered passing lanes. The turnovers were cleaned up on Monday and that led to clean breakouts.
“For me it was the breakout scheme a little bit," head coach Todd Reirden said, "Having a few new guys that didn't go through the series last year, especially on the back end, understanding that you have to spread things out to be able to break down their pressure and then you have to be able to execute wall plays. Then the importance of us moving pucks to outside speed I thought allowed us to break some of their pressure. It was a similar gameplan that we used against Vegas two years ago when we won the Cup. That's what they do, they skate really well and now we've found I think a little bit of a successful formula against that that we're getting better at, understanding how to do that and believe in it.”
A good start
On Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, the Caps found themselves down 1-0 after 20 minutes to one of the worst teams in the NHL that was also playing without its starting goalie. The talent disparity between those two teams is such that the game probably could have been over after the first 20 minutes. Instead, the Caps trailed, New Jersey’s confidence steadily grew, frustration set in and the Caps never recovered.
You know what is really frustrating to play against? An aggressive forecheck. You cannot mail in a period against a system like that because it will generate dangerous defensive-zone turnovers that lead to goals.
It was clear from the drop of the puck on Monday that the Caps were ready to play and they took control in the opening frame with two goals and forced four minor penalties.
“I think we had more energy, we played harder, we were winning battles,” Tom Wilson said. “And that’s what it takes against a team that tries to play that type of identity. We were able to take it to them tonight and get the job done.”
You cannot take shifts off against an aggressive forecheck. You have to have plenty of energy, play fast and make quick decisions or the Hurricanes are going to take advantage very quickly.
The Caps were clearly gassed by the end of last season’s playoff series. When Game 7 went to overtime play devolved to the point where it seemed like only a matter of time before the Hurricanes finally cashed in. In the first loss this season, Washington was playing its third game in four nights. The team jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but faded down the stretch. In the Caps’ second loss to Carolina, it was the second leg of a back-to-back.
After one of their worst losses of the season on Saturday, many fans would have been happy to see Reirden force the team to run suicides in their next practice until the building closed. Instead, the team wrapped up practice after only 20-30 minutes. They followed that up with an optional skate on Monday.
The extra rest seemed to do the team some good and gave them a boost to start that lasted throughout the game.
"Todd challenged us to give us that kind of option and I think we did a good job," Alex Ovechkin said.
Playing with the lead
Washington had allowed the first goal in 12 of its last 15 games heading into Monday. Ovechkin made sure that didn’t happen win two goals in the first period to spot Washington a 2-0 lead. From there the game got a bit defensive.
“You want to get out to a lead,” Wilson said. “Tired of chasing games. When you play with the lead you’re able to play the way you want, dictate the pace, dictate the momentum. We did that against a team that works pretty hard.”
An aggressive forecheck is much more effective when playing with a lead than trying to play from behind. Getting an early two-goal lead was huge in terms of forcing Carolina to open things up.
“They’re one of the best teams in the league for a reason and they know how to shut it down and slow the game when they're up, not take chances,” Carolina forward Jordan Staal said. “I think it’s a lot more difficult playing against that team when you’re down.”
Responding with your own forecheck
An aggressive forecheck forces turnovers which in turn generates offense, but it is also good for keeping possession and keeping the puck in the offensive zone.
One major way to beat an aggressive forecheck is with prolonged shifts in the offensive zone. When the opposition does finally get control of the puck and breaks it out, it usually leads to a dump-in as they need a line change. You know what teams are not doing when they are changing lines? Setting up the forecheck.
Washington upped the aggressiveness and intensity of its own forecheck on Monday and made sure the Hurricanes spent the majority of the night in their own which thus prevented their forecheck from being as effective.
"[The top line is] such a good line when they get in the forecheck," Reirden said. "It's no fun if you're a defenseman and you're thinking about going back for a puck under pressure and it's either Alex Ovechkin or Tom Wilson coming to play you so I think that's something that we have that we have to continue to impose our will on the opposition."
Caps fans are probably very familiar with Carolina’s second line of Andrei Svechnikov, Staal and Warren Foegele at this point. If you were to pick the three most annoying forwards on the Hurricanes' roster, those three would be near the top of the list. Foegele especially has been able to matchup well against the Caps’ top two lines in the past. Part of Reirden’s gameplan on Monday was to match Lars Eller’s line against Carolina’s second.
"I wanted to change a little bit of our matchup against Staal and I had a lot of time for Lars and [Richard Panik] and [Carl Hagelin] doing their job," Reirden said. "And that's something when we first started to think about forming that third line and how we wanted to do it, that was something that I wanted to take a look at. And I came at those guys before the game, in particular Lars, and said if Staal's starting the game, you're playing against him and best I can, I'm going to get you against him. Obviously penalties and stuff force you to go a little sideways on some things just to make sure you're maintaining ice time and keeping players into the game, but I was really happy with Lars and Richard and Carl against them tonight. To me, that frees up Ovi now to play against [Erik Haula] and who do they score against, Ovi? Against Haula's line. Now that is the advantage of having home ice and being able to get to some things we wanted to do."
Getting those kind of matchups are not as easy on the road where the Caps have to change first, but pitting those two lines together was a winning formula in Washington. Now Reirden has to figure out how to get that matchup in Raleigh.
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: