No one needs to be reminded of the Washington Capitals' porous defense last season (or last season as a whole, really), but among their myriad problems was an inability to limit shots against.
As a refresher, the Capitals allowed 33.5 shots per game, 27th in the NHL, and 31.3 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, 26th. That was seemingly alright by former coach Adam Oates and then-general manager George McPhee, the latter of whom told former colleague Katie Carrera that "We play a system where teams get probably more shots the way we play but most of them are from the outside, we’ll allow those."
Coach Barry Trotz, however, does not subscribe to that particular ideology, which is reflected in his team's statistics through five games:
Shots Against Per Game
Shots Against Per 60 Minutes 5-on-5
Blocked Shots Per Game
- 2013-14: 14.7
- 2014-15: 17.2
Corsi Percentage 5-on-5
(A proxy for puck possession totaling shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots)
Limited sample size aside, early returns are encouraging. In three of Trotz's first five games, the Capitals have allowed 25 or fewer shots. In 130 regular-season games under Oates, they did so 12 times.
There are a few reasons for that significant improvement. Trotz encourages his players to block shots, something Oates dissuaded them from doing. A stabilized defensive corps, made so by the offseason acquisitions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, has also helped.
“Nisky’s better than ever I thought he was defensively," forward Jason Chimera said. "His stick is one of the best sticks I’ve seen for a long time. And Orpi, everyone knows Orpik blocks shots. We’ve been pretty solid right now.”
Another is the Capitals, as Trotz presented Monday, "don’t spend particularly a lot of time in our end." A simple eye test proved that Washington struggled to break out effectively last season, with sloppy execution leading to prolonged shifts chasing the puck in the defensive zone. An emphasis on controlled zone exits has led to smoother transitions up ice.
"When we get into the zone, we’re communicating better with each other and we’re finding the open lanes and we’re finding a way to get out of the zone as opposed to previous years where we got it, we just tried to rim it up the boards or tried to force plays," said forward Eric Fehr, one of Washington's best skaters at exiting the zone last season. "We do a good job of communicating with each other and finding outlets.”
As a result, less of a burden has been placed upon the goaltenders, who are no longer forced to make several game-preserving saves.
"How we’re playing is the right way," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "It gives everyone a certain job. We know what the group expects out of us as goaltenders that we’re going to have those two or three saves a game that we need to make and it’s not seven or eight of them. It’s a controlled number because everyone’s doing their role so well that we’re keeping our shot totals down, we’re keeping those chances-against down and developing offense through it. What we’ve done on the defensive end is the reason why our record is what it is.”
In describing what his "five, five, five" on-ice philosophy looks like when working at optimum efficiency, Trotz has offered the visual of five red jerseys playing in all three zones at once. The adjustment is ongoing, but the Capitals are already seeing the benefits.
“That’s a hard part of the game because it’s simple but very difficult to train your mind to go hard in those areas, especially the wingers to get back that extra five feet, take those extra two strides when you don’t think that they mean anything when they do," Holtby said. "The centers to get low, the D-men to get back quick for their partner when sometimes you let up naturally, it's those parts of the game that are extremely tough and people don’t notice and I think we’ve done an outstanding job of it so far.
"It’s those little things that Barry wants to implement and that’s what’s going to make us successful.”
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