Capitals' Defense Continues Engineering Offense

Twice within the final four minutes of the second period against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen slung the puck toward the net. There, a friendly forward -- Andre Burakovsky first, Troy Brouwer shortly after -- was stationed to tip it in, still leaving Niskanen without an even-strength goal this season. 

"I don't count that as [being] robbed. I like those," Niskanen said Friday. "I like when forwards go to the net, and it’s nice to see them rewarded for that. I'm shooting from 45-plus feet out. That thing ain't going in, unless it's screened or hits something."

Those primary assists were Niskanen's eighth and ninth of the season at even strength, a total only bested by teammate John Carlson's 10 among NHL defensemen and one that left him incredulous. 

"Really?" Niskanen responded as he digested the information. "I never would’ve guessed that."

Neither would've coach Barry Trotz, who upon processing it praised it as a barometer of the defense's success in implementing the coaching staff's directive.

"It's a good indicator that guys are up in the play, have their head up, being a part of the offense, a lot of the times you're not going to get primary assists if you're not a part of the offense," he said. "We're either doing it off the rush, or we're doing it with what we call 'OZP,' offensive zone play, where they're moving around and making good decisions and finding people open. That's a good stat to have. I did not know that. I’ll have to bring it up to them. It's an indicator. That''s one of those things that tells you you're doing what we're wanting you to do -- be part of the offense."

The Capitals finished last season tied for 22nd in the NHL with 140 points from their defensive corps, a ranking that Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden were adamantly opposed to reproducing. Washington defensemen have already combined for 110 points this season, third-most in the league.

"We've spent a lot of time building the right habits and the right details into our players and their blueline work and adding in deception and different shot selection and different ways to create shooting lanes," Reirden said. "Sometimes shooting off the net, sometimes shooting to the side of the net, high tips."

That has assisted in engineering Trotz's "low-to-high" approach in the offensive zone, wherein the forwards cycle the puck and draw opposing skaters below the faceoff circles before passing to the point.

If executed properly, it will stretch the defense, creating space for Washington's defensemen to shoot and traffic from screening forwards hunting for deflections and rebounds. 

"Forwards have been doing an awesome job getting to the net, where that wasn't always the case," Niskanen said. "That thing ain't going in unless there's some kind of traffic around there or it hits something. Just the way teams play now too, everyone collapses so much around their net. Team defense forces the other team's D to beat you pretty much. You collapse around the net, because forwards are so good around the net, short plays. Find us, try to get it around the net for them."

Returning to Niskanen, six of his aforementioned nine primary assists have been shots deflected past goaltenders. The speed of the game does not allow for much other than simply trying to get the puck past whomever is attempting to impede his shooting lane. There is a science to it, though. 

"You want to make sure you're shooting the puck hard, but you're shooting it to an area," Trotz said. "Sometimes with the traffic, the way it is, if you just bury your bead, you're burying it into someone's shin pads, you're burying it into a group of guys. Sometimes a guy, he's boxing out and he's got his stick off to the side a bit and that's what you want. We want to get pucks to the net, but we want to get them there with some intelligence and some thought."

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