Last year, the Washington Capitals were one of the surprises of the NHL.
Everyone knew about Alexander Ovechkin, but no one expected a change in head coaches to make such a difference to the team.
When Bruce Boudreau took over the Caps last year, the team was a woeful 6-14-1. After taking over the coaching job, and developing a culture of aggressive hockey, he lead the team to a 37-17-7 record, not to mention a Southeast Division title.
A hot goaltender in Cristobal Huet certainly helped push the Capitals into the playoffs, but the aggressive hockey played by the Caps was significant.
Now the league is aware of the Caps. No one is surprised by their aggressive, offense-first style of hockey. Once again, this will lead to many goals scored in Washington, but this team's hope rests on defense.
As of now, the Washington Capitals are 5-4-1 and are in second place in the Southeast Division, but are 0-1-0 in the division and only 1-2-1 in conference play. To date, the Caps have scored only 32 goals, but have given up 34.
Part of the reason they are upside down on their goal differential per game has to do with a couple of terrible games by new goaltender Jose Theodore, but opponents are also no longer caught off guard by the Caps' aggressive defenders.
Top Capitals defender Mike Green scored 25 goals last year, and led all defenders in the NHL in this category. He has said he would like to score 30 goals this year. This has actually angered some Caps fans, who believe that defenders should have a defense-first attitude when playing behind the blue line.
But Green’s philosophy matches well with Boudreau’s. Boudreau likes to have a defense that concerns itself will goal scoring as much as goal stopping. Last year, the Caps had some success with this at the end of the year thanks to the hot-handed Huet. However, this year the Capitals' netminders have not been as stellar.
Primary goaltender Jose Theodore has a 3.77 goals-against average per game, and is saving a paltry 87.7 percent of shots on goal. Theodore’s backup Brent Johnson is only fairing slightly better. While he is only giving up 2.71 goals per game, his save percentage is also low at 88.5 percent.
In order for an offensive-minded defense to have success in the NHL, consistency is imperative between the pipes. Unfortunately, the Capitals have gotten anything but in their games so far this year.
Finally, there are developing concerns on the Capitals penalty-kill teams. Boudreau has been experimenting with putting the Alexanders (Ovechkin and Semin) on the penalty kill.
Ovechkin is an all-around skater. He hits hard and plays well on both ends of the ice. Semin’s talents lie primarily on the offensive attack. Adding him to the second line of the penalty kill teams suggests that the Caps may be looking to add some shorthanded goals to their scoring repertoire.
While this idea may have merit, the Caps first need to be able to prevent more power-play goals before they can think about scoring shorthanded.
If the Capitals can right the ship on defense, they will have another successful season. With the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Green, and Federov, the points and goals will come. However, the defense needs to think about stopping pucks first. Boudreau needs to be careful to not expect 5-4 victories night after night.