NHL Playoffs 2012: Dale Hunter Cannot Give Up His Defense-First System Now
Yes, we have seen this before. This is exactly the way it went down against the Bruins and the similarities are astonishing.
In both series, the Caps dropped Games 1 and 3; in both series they prevailed in Games 2 and 4 to tie the series.
As we head to a pivotal Game 5, Caps fans might be tempted to feel pretty good about their chances. And they should.
These are not the same Caps that have been the poster-children for underachievement any longer.
Yet for all the optimism that very recent history can repeat itself, the two games in Washington did raise some red flags for those who Rock The Red.
I recently wrote how this series no longer looked, felt or played like the Bruins series.
After watching two games in DC, I now feel that for the Caps to get past the Rangers and get back to the conference finals for the fist time since 1998, they need to make a concerted effort to make the rest of this series feel more like the Boston series—and that starts with Dale Hunter.
Whether by design or by necessity, once the series shifted to Washington, the Caps offense shifted into overdrive, with mixed results.
Though it can hardly be said that the Caps were weak defensively, the semi-reversion to the style of playoff hockey the Caps have played since 2008, if it continues, might not bode very well at all for the Caps in what has now become a best-of-three series.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
The main reason is something I have been preaching since this series got going. I think the Rangers very much want the Caps to be like the Caps of old, because, in many ways, the Rangers were built specifically to beat that team.
The Rangers were always a very good defensive team with one of the best goalies in the world to boot. But they lacked the ability to skate with the Caps or to outscore them.
This was evident in 2009 and then again in 2011.
This year's version of the Rangers, however, is more than a match for the Caps as far as offensive firepower is concerned. They showed that in Games 3 and 4 with sustained pressure on the Caps defense and dominating board play.
The good news for the Capitals is that they still have a ton of talent offensively and can skate with any team in the NHL, including the Rangers. Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom all seem to be getting stronger. Normally, the natural reaction would be to go with this, to try and get these three guys even more involved in the game.
But that would be a mistake—that is just what the Rangers are expecting them to do. Being predictable and doing exactly what your opponent has prepared for is never a good recipe for success.
How Should Dale Hunter Coach The Caps In Game 5?
The other reason to shift away from the more offense-oriented approach we saw in Games 3 and 4 is because the Rangers' aggressive forecheck continues to cause major problems for the Caps. The Washington Times even picked up on this before Game 3.
As accurate as that article was, the Rangers' forecheck only improved in Games 3 and 4. It is tailor-made to exploit a team that emphasizes a fast hitting, offensive surge into the zone. It causes mistakes, creates opportunities, and disrupts rhythm.
Now, of course, an aggressive forecheck can come back to bite you because if you miss, there is a propensity for breakaways or other big plays in the other direction. But John Tortorella's squad is a very disciplined team that does not make those types of mistakes very often.
Still, the best way to avoid getting victimized by the very fast and aggressive forecheck is to not play into it in the first place. The best way to do that is to probably take a more conservative and deliberate approach to the offense.
No, it won't be exciting. But at this stage of the playoffs, we are not talking about being entertained—we are talking about winning a Stanley Cup, something the Caps are only 10 wins from accomplishing.
There is not a Caps fan out there who can honestly say they would mind, one bit, being bored to sleep every single game from here on out if it meant watching Alexander Ovechkin skate the Cup around the ice come the 2012 NHL playoff's end.
Games 3 and 4 were clearly the most entertaining contests of the series. But I do not believe continuing on that same track for the Capitals, or that it will translate into further postseason success.
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Now, of course, the best approach would be a balanced one. A happy medium between the more defensive style of Games 1 and 2, and the more wide open style we saw in the last two matchups. But in hockey, as in life, balance is not so easy to attain.
Be that as it may, on a day when the Kentucky Derby was run, it seems fitting to use a horse racing analogy here. Dale Hunter needs to pull the reins hard on this team and get them to slow the pace of the game back down considerably. He needs to amp up the Caps' own forecheck and make the Rangers earn every single entry into the offensive zone.
He needs to get the Caps to play a more physically punishing game and wear the Blue Shirts down even more than they might already be.
Slowly but surely the Caps have come to realize that their identity has changed, along with their style. This has led to unexpected success this postseason.
If that is to continue, Dale Hunter needs to forget the more offensive style we saw in Washington and focus more on the style of hockey that worked so well in Boston. The style of hockey with which he is most familiar and comfortable.
If he does, this might catch the Rangers off-guard and give the Caps the edge they will need in one of the most hostile environments imaginable in Game 5 at the Madison Square Garden.
In a series as tight as this one has become, any edge is an edge that might just be the deciding factor.
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