Washington Capitals Need Ovechkin to Find Offense in Transition

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) hits New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal (18) at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where the Washington Capitals defeated the New York Rangers 2-1 in overtime in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

Much has been made of Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau’s sudden conversion into the Church of Defensive Hockey.

When the Capitals struggled during the regular season, Boudreau moved the team into a more defensive system and found consistency and success. And Boudreau hasn’t looked back, maintaining a defensive posture into the playoffs.

So far it’s paid off, as Washington is up two games to one over the New York Rangers. But is Boudreau’s new defensive system sustainable?

Alex Ovechkin has two goals (one of them an ugly whack-in) and two assists over the first three games, but amazingly, he hasn’t been much of a factor in the playoffs. Sure, every time Ovechkin is on the ice, the Rangers are forced to pay attention to him, but Ovechkin has had no real highlight reel moments. He’s had very few opportunities to use his speed.

Playing Boudreau’s system, Ovechkin has looked like a solid two-way player, but not an NHL superstar.

It’s because Boudreau’s defensive system is overly simply and without nuance.

Boudreau is constantly keeping forwards back, making sure they’re in good position to prevent the Rangers from making any kind of play. The puck is frequently carried out, to make sure it leaves the zone safely. Players, including Ovechkin, are looking to finish their checks and keep the puck away from the Rangers, but no one, including Ovechkin, is thinking offense.

That works fine against a team like the Rangers, that struggles to find goals. But that’s not going to work against a team with offensive pop. Because ultimately, you can’t win a playoff game 0-0. Teams need some offense in the playoffs. And being able to put up some goals against the Rangers, who have had some shockingly bad defensive lapses, doesn’t mean it’ll be that easy against other opponents.

I’m quite sure Boudreau’s move to defense is inspired by the various Cup-winning Devils teams of the past half decade. Perhaps that is even why Washington acquired former Devil Jason Arnott before the trade deadline. But what people tend to forget about those teams is that while the Devils certainly had a defensive bent, they were capable of moments of incredible offense.

Boudreau’s system doesn’t leave room for those moments. That’s what we’re seeing in the playoffs, and that’s what we saw in Ovechkin’s career-low 32 goals this season.

Boudreau’s defensive system has no transition component. When opponents turnover the puck, play stops while the puck is protected and everyone re-sets. In essence, every time the Capitals have a chance to create an odd-man rush, they give their opponent time to get back.

That’s why the Capitals often look confused and disjointed when they do find themselves in an odd-man rush situation.

The Devils were all about transition. When an opponent made a mistake, the opponent was going to pay for it, because most of the Devils offense came out of transition. Don’t forget that in 1999-2000, when New Jersey won one of their Cups, Patrik Elias had 35 goals in 72 games. Offense can come out of defense. Especially when you’re dealing with a player of Ovechkin’s caliber.

It’s probably too late for the Capitals to rework a system they’ve been learning all year, but it seems like they won’t get very far in the playoffs using it (assuming they get past the Rangers). The system is too simple and doesn’t allow the team to showcase its considerable offensive talent. What’s the point of having one of the NHL’s best players if you’re not going to give him opportunities to showcase his talent? Why play things so safe that Ovechkin’s talent is completely obviated?

The Capitals aren’t playing defensively so much as they’re playing in an intellectually lazy manner.

If Boudreau wants his Capitals to succeed in the playoffs, he needs to take his coaching to a higher level. Defense is important, but there’s such a thing as offensive responsibility, too. It’s not enough to stop the other team from scoring. The Capitals need to score, also.

After all, Ovechkin is more than a just great checker.