The Washington Capitals need more offense if they wish to get by the top-seeded New York Rangers in this round.
Eight games into the Capitals postseason, hockey analysts are consistently abuzz about one thing. No, not goaltender Braden Holtby (though he's gotten plenty of attention). Rather, the catchphrase du jour is "Dale Hunter hockey."
What exactly is "Dale Hunter hockey?" In basic terms, it's a vast departure from, say, the 2009-2010 season, by the end of which the Capitals had run away with the President's Trophy, amassing 121 points, a 54-15-13 record and a ridiculous 3.82 goals per game.
However, as everyone well knows, that regular season victory was coupled with rapid defeat, and the Capitals were bounced in the first round of the 2010 playoffs by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
This season, with Dale Hunter coming to the coaching helm in November 2011, the Capitals' system changed drastically, shifting to a "defense first" approach which would have served Hunter himself quite well during his playing career. But it was a controversial switch, one that some say "stifled" the offensive talents of players like Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
But one round into the playoffs, several of the early naysayers to the Hunter system are singing a different tune. Each of the Capitals' seven low-scoring games against the Boston Bruins were decided by just one goal (four went to overtime), and the Capitals blocked a staggering 139 shots in the series (only the New York Rangers, with 155, blocked more shots in the first round of this year's playoffs).
Blocking shots was only part of the Capitals' strong defensive play in the first round. The team also ramped up their hit total, with 234 hits on the Bruins (compare that to 171 hits in their 2010 series against Montreal).
It was their shot-blocking defense, not to mention a hot goalie, that helped the Capitals down the defending Stanley Cup Champions in seven games.
Now in the second round, the Capitals had 28 hits (Matt Hendricks led the charge with five) in the first game of the new series, matched up with the New York Rangers. The "Dale Hunter hockey" system was again front-and-center, particularly as the Capitals limited the Rangers to just 14 shots on goal in the game -- a new Capitals franchise record for fewest shots allowed in a postseason game.
While the "defense first" approach clearly helped to shape that statistic, the Capitals lost Game 1 by a 3-1 margin. Ironically enough, what the Capitals are missing -- and what they need to win the series -- is offense.
New York, like Boston and Washington, is a very strong team defensively, made all the more obvious by the fact that the Capitals and the Rangers had nearly identical defensive statistics through Round 1. In order to motor past the Rangers' defense, the Capitals have to try just as hard offensively as they do defensively.
That's not to say the Capitals should abandon their defensive ways. After all, it did get them through the first round, though not totally unscathed (it's hard not to cringe when watching Alexander Semin making a sliding block on a slapshot from Zdeno Chara).
"You see (a lot of shot blocking) in the playoffs," said Jason Chimera. "We're doing a better job of blocking shots and not letting the puck get to the net. I think it's imperative that we keep doing that."
But it should also be imperative that the Capitals get the puck to the opposite net. Brooks Laich's saucer pass to Jason Chimera for the Capitals' only goal of Game 1 was beautiful -- but there weren't enough of those plays.
Perhaps Game 1 was just a feeling-out process for the more offensively-inclined Capitals. After all, the Capitals did hit the goalpost three times during the game. But Alex Ovechkin admitted that he was given a lot more space by the Rangers' defense than he was against Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. However, he waited too long, particularly in the neutral zone, to take action when he had chances.
"I had more time and space than when I played against Boston, 100 percent," Ovechkin said after Game 1. "I just have to be better in the neutral zone to create that kind of opportunity for me and for (current linemates Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer). You can see when (Jason Chimera) scored the goal, we could fly in the neutral zone and (Laich) found (Chimera). So we just have to do the same."
The key for the Capitals in this second round series is to find the balance between turning on the offense while maintaining the defense. The Rangers possess a few snipers, like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, who can make a team pay when they give them a little too much time.
Troy Brouwer, for one, has confidence that the team can keep up their current style, and win games doing it.
"We've been able to get through that (first) round against a very tough opponent," Brouwer said. "There's no reason why we should be changing our style when this is what's working for us, this is what we're comfortable with."
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