Fast Start, Forechecking Key to Keeping Home Ice

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel

The Caps might not have played their best hockey in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the New York Rangers, but they played well in those contests. More importantly, they played well enough to wrangle home ice advantage away from the top regular season team in the Eastern Conference. “I thought we were right there in Game 1,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “We didn’t play well, but we were right there. So we were disappointed with that one. We played a little better in Game 2, and we’re going to have to be better tonight if we’re going to take advantage of the home ice here.” With the series now shifting back to the District for Game 3 tonight and Game 4 on Saturday afternoon, the key for the Caps is to keep that advantage. The best way to go about it is with a fast start and consistent forechecking pressure. Washington has played six of its nine playoff games thus far this spring on the road. Although the Caps possessed the worst regular season road record (16-21-4) of any of the 16 Stanley Cup playoff entrants, they’ve won four of their six road tilts to start the playoffs. Fast starts have been at the root of that road success. The Capitals have allowed a grand total of one first-period goal in the 120 minutes of first-period road hockey they’ve played this spring. That lone tally came in their most recent game, Game 2 against the Rangers on Monday night in New York. It came in the final minute of that first frame, and it came after the Caps had already carved out a 2-0 advantage for themselves in the game. In other words, the Caps have yet to trail at any point in the first 20 minutes of any road playoff game. For a team that had more than its fair share of road woes during the regular season, that’s huge. Now, they need to translate that swift start to the home venue. The Caps finished up the regular season with a 5-1-1 mark in their last seven home games, but they’re just 1-2 in the three playoff games played on F Street. “We’d like to,” says Laich, of getting off to a fast start in Game 3. “I’m sure the Rangers are coming in thinking, ‘We want to keep it tight, and not get into a track meet in the first 10 minutes.’ We’d like to get our fans into it. Whether it’s with a hit or a goal, some sort of way to get the building alive. But then you have to continue that. The Flyers scored early last night and got their building alive, but then Jersey pushed back and for the rest of the game didn’t give them much at all. We have to be better at home; 1-2 so far isn’t good enough.” Washington has allowed just 11 goals in its six road games. The Capitals have been much more generous on home ice, permitting nine goals in three games at Verizon Center. “I think that’s the key to any hockey game,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, “not only during the playoffs. “You want a fast start so you can get the momentum in your favor and plant some doubt in the other team’s mind.” New York came out hard in the first period of each of the two games at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers’ forecheckers put four hits on Washington defensemen in the first two minutes of Saturday’s Game 1, and New York outhit the Caps 15-11 in the first frame. In Monday’s Game 2, the Blueshirts outhit Washington by a decisive 21-10 count in the first, with 10 of those body blows coming on Capitals defensemen. The best way for the Caps to counter that is with a better forecheck of their own. “You’d like to,” says Laich. “I’m sure our [defensemen] are wanting us to hold up a little more and not let [the Rangers] get those free hits. And certainly it’s a game plan of ours as it was last series to wear their defensemen down. Always make them turn and go back for the puck is one way to do it. And if you do that enough times during the course of a game and the course of a series, you’re just going to get tired of it and frustrated and maybe there’s one time where they cheat a little bit and we capitalize on it. You don’t know when it’s going to be, but you just hope that every finished check is an investment in the series and at some point it’ll pay off.” The hits total has been fairly even over the final two periods of each of the first two games, but the Caps have seemed a bit flat-footed in the early minutes of each of those contests. “I think overall our physical game is pretty good,” says caps left wing Jason Chimera. “I think the first period they came out really hard; obviously they wanted to get that game. It showed by the way they were coming out. We’ve got guys that can punish their defensemen, too, which we have to do. It might not matter in Game 3 or 4, but by Game 5, 6, 7 they’re pretty tired and they’re sick and tired of Jason Chimera and Troy Brouwer running them every time. “I think that’s a big key. Especially their top minute guys; they don’t want to get hit. [Rangers defensemen Dan] Girardi and [Ryan] McDonagh, they don’t want to get hit. If they get hit all the time, they’re going to have a hard time on the night. We need to make a conscious effort of doing that, too.” On paper anyway, Washington has a bit of a depth advantage in this series, much more so than it did in its opening round set with the Boston Bruins. Rangers head coach John Tortorella is noted for riding his big horses hard, and using a handful of players sporadically. He won a Stanley Cup championship using that philosophy with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. The Rangers roll mainly with three lines and two defensive pairs, sprinkling a modicum of ice time among the remaining three forwards and two blueliners. The Caps are comfortable with all four of their forward lines right now, and they have more defensemen that they trust than they have sweaters to outfit them. “You look at the depth on our team,” says Chimera. “I think we’ve got one of the deepest teams that is going right now. Look at the bodies on the fourth line. It’s hard to keep up with them physically. [Joel Ward] and [Mike Knuble] are just beasts down low, guys are on their backs, crawling on their backs and they’re still going to the net with it. “It’s a great line for us right now, and [Keith Aucoin] can make plays and he’s giving it out to those guys. It seems like every time they’re on the ice, they’re in the other end of the ice. That’s a good thing, especially playing against those guys that are maybe not the most physical guys, keeping up with those guys is pretty hard.” Three of New York’s top four defenders logged more than 25 minutes in Game 2, and it’s up to the Caps to make sure those are hard minutes. “With the depth that we have,” says Caps center Jay Beagle, “it’s going to be hard to wear us down. We have eight defensemen who are solid and four lines that are going really well right now. We’ve just got to make sure we take it to them and try to wear down their top four [defensemen]; make those 25 minutes feel like 35 minutes that they’re playing. Really grind them out and wear them down and make them tired at the end of games and bruised and banged up. That’s something that our line has to take on as the checking line.” There’s no better time to start than in Wednesday’s Game 3. A fast start and a consistent forecheck could go a long way toward protecting the home ice advantage Washington worked so hard to take from the Rangers. “I think that’s the way our mental approach has come out,” says Chimera of the Caps’ road successes this spring. “I think we’ve got to have that mental approach at home, come out and be stingy defensively and get our chances. We’re going to get our chances offensively if we’re stingy defensively, because teams take chances no matter what. If you play that way defensively, you’re going to get chances offensively. We’ve got to take that road mentality home with us and just play that kind of game. “Play the way we’ve been playing on the road. I think we opened up a bit against Boston and gave them too many chances in the games we played here. Obviously you play with more fire in your belly at home because the fans are going and everyone is going. You’ve got to kind of harness that energy and use it in the right way; don’t go running around. The simplicity of the road game is what you need at home.” Oh yeah, and forecheck. “We’ve got to forecheck more,” says Beagle. “Especially in the first five minutes of both games, they came out really hard and established a forecheck and a cycle and were taking it to us in the first five minutes. I think being on home ice, we’ve got to try and do what they did to us in their rink and make a push right away and not look back.”

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Onward

January 14, 2013

Last night’s 2-1 triple-overtime setback to the New York Rangers was a tough one for the Caps and their faithful. It’s always difficult to lose a playoff game in overtime whether it happens in the first minute or the 115th. It’s got to be even harder for longtime Caps fans, who’ve witnessed this

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