Is speed a weakness for the older, more physical Capitals? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
This generation of the Capitals has always played a heavier, more physical style of game than a fast one. Sure, they have some fast players, but speed was never their top asset. After lackluster performances in three games against quick teams, however, it's time to ask if speed is now a weakness for Washington?
It's important to keep in mind that just because the Caps are slower than some of their opponents does not automatically mean that speed is a weakness. There are different ways to win in the NHL. If speed was the only way to do it, then every team would look for more fast players.
But if you decide to go a different route, as the Caps have with their more physical style of play, you have to account for the opponent's speed and that is something Washington has struggled with lately.
"That's the way the game's trending," Tom Wilson said. "Teams are getting a lot faster, they're playing faster, they're playing north and that's what we talk about in our room. We've just got to make sure we're executing from our end, winning the battles and pushing the puck north and playing fast."
"You're trying to win the game, you're trying to be the better percentage than their percentage," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "But the challenge has been to try and make our guys aware of who we're playing and the type of team we're playing."
Coming off two of their best performances of the season, the Caps were quickly brought down to Earth on Saturday against the New York Rangers. Offensively, Washington seemed completely disjointed. They were drawn into playing a fast game with the Rangers and resorted to trying too many long breakout passes into the neutral zone to get behind the defense, but those passes kept getting picked off and extending New York's zone time. The whole team seemed thrown off by the Rangers' speed and managed only one goal for the game.
On Sunday, the New Jersey Devils really caught the Caps off guard with their speed in the first period, particularly Jack Hughes, who Washington seemingly had no answer for. The Caps were able to exert themselves over the course of the game and slow the pace down, but found themselves having to climb out of a 2-0 hole by the time they took control.
Tuesday was a very good look at two contrasting styles as Washington hosted Pittsburgh. The Caps had a plan going into this game and that was to slow Pittsburgh down with the body. Washington out-hit the Penguins 26-5 through the first two periods and 31-15 for the game. This can be an effective way to play against speed, but not if you just completely yield possession to the other team as the Caps did for much of the night. Washington mustered only 22 shots on goal while giving up 37.
"If we're in the offensive zone a lot and kind of hold onto pucks and eat pucks, that puts them in a spot where they have to stand still in their own end," Carl Hagelin said. "Once we give up the puck quick, they can keep their speed and all of a sudden, those teams are dangerous off the rush. We kind of have to limit that. It starts with us making smarter plays in the O-zone, holding onto more pucks and just play more of a possession game."
Playing physical isn't just about hitting your opponent, it's about disrupting what they are trying to do with the puck. It is about generating turnovers and pinning them in their own zone. The Caps did not do that Tuesday and spent much of the night chasing the Penguins around the ice.
Washington's physical style of play is nothing new. It is not as if that is something Laviolette brought to the team so they should have a better handle on how to match their power against another team's speed. Lately, that has not been the case.
As one of the oldest teams in the league, when we talk about speed being an issue for Washington, this leads to inevitable questions over whether the team's age has caught up to it. I am not sure I would go that far considering even when they won the Cup in 2018, it wasn't with speed. This team has never won that way. But they have to be better against it because, the more they continue to struggle with it, the more opponents will continue to push the tempo.
"If we're worried about our game, we've got to play a little bit faster and close on them quicker," Wilson said. "If we take care of that, I think we'll find ourselves with some more room and some more opportunities to make plays."