The dirty “T” word: Capitals to further tweak their defensive trap

The shell shock that many NHL fans have from the “dead puck” era in the 90s and early 2000s is still evident. After all, just say to a fan that their favorite team that defends strongly plays a variation of the neutral zone trap and they’ll freak out like Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back” after he found out Darth Vader was his father. They might even quote Luke word for word, “No! That’s not true! That’s impossible!”

If fans would search their feelings they would know it to be true. Everyone traps somehow and such is the case for the newly defensive Washington Capitals. They unlocked the key to keeping opponents off the scoreboard and finding an effective way to trap teams helped do the trick. The downside for the Caps is that their adherence to playing defense turned the run-and-gun Capitals into a predictable offense and the number of goals dropped considerably.

With the new season approaching, Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com finds out that Bruce Boudreau is looking to tweak his trap a little more to help tighten things up for the Caps and Mike Knuble is eager to see how it plays out.

“We made some good progress with the new system we had after December, but I don’t think they were real happy with the way it ended and it won’t be the same now that we’re back,” Knuble said. “It’s going to be a hybrid. It was too conservative.”

While the Caps were one of the league’s tightest defensive teams last season, they were also one of its least productive, finishing 19th in goals per game at 2.67. Only three Capitals topped the 20-goal mark last season – Alex Ovechkin with a career-low 32, Alexander Semin with 28 and Knuble with 24 – and Knuble believes a more opportunistic offense should go a long way in getting the Caps deep into the playoffs.

“It will be interesting,” he said. “I think a lot of players are excited to see what the staff came up with. I’ve got to believe it will be more of a transition mode. Maybe we’ll switch back and forth, depending on the game. But I think we all left last season with the feeling  we didn’t score enough goals and the games were too low scoring than what we’re capable of.”

With how the Capitals are built now by adding tougher two-way forwards like Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward and smart two-way defenseman Roman Hamrlik, you could argue that they’ll either be a better team at transitioning from defense to offense or that they’re going all in with grinding games out.

With offensive weapons like Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin, asking them to grind out goals is like trying to get a Ferrari to win a tractor pull. Better puck luck and more freedom around the ice for those guys to get shots will help them while guys like Knuble, Brouwer, and Ward crash the net for rebounds.

Defensively speaking, however, the Caps switching to a more hybrid kind of trap is one that should benefit them. Being able to turn on a dime and counterattack after forcing a turnover is something the Caps should be better at as they’ve got tremendous talent to do it and be great at it. Being able to do it as well as teams like Detroit and Vancouver can should be their ultimate goal. If it works out that way, Washington might just get their chance to show what they can do in the Stanley Cup finals.

Brooks Orpik leaves Game 7 after Paquette’s hit from behind

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While the Washington Capitals built up a lead in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, they lost two players before the end of the second period.

First, Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a Ryan McDonagh shot with the back of his neck in the first period. After returning to the game, he would leave the Capitals’ bench late in the second period.

Joining him would be Orpik, who took a big hit from behind along the boards from Lightning forward Cedric Paquette. As Orpik was being tended to, the officials got together and determined that there would no penalty on the play, which is an odd decision.

As Orpik goes to get the puck in the corner, he does peek over his shoulder and sees Paquette a ways away, but he doesn’t change his body position as Paquette drills him. He’s probably not expecting to get hit even with the Lightning forward in the area. That would have easily been at least a major, maybe even a game misconduct (Remember Steve Bernier?).

The Capitals would respond to the hit two minutes later. On the scoreboard. Andre Burakovsky potted his second goal of the night to give Washington a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the third period.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Goal, fight, ripped jersey highlight wild first period in Game 7

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So, Alex Ovechkin isn’t a big game player, you say?

What say you, then, about Ovi’s goal 62 seconds into Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday?

Ovechkin called Game 7 the biggest game for himself, the team and the Capitals organization on Tuesday and he wasted no time putting an early stamp on it.

His shot was vintage Ovi, just slightly higher in his “office” than usual. But the result was the same: a seeing-eye clapper that sailed past Andrei Vasilevkiy for a 1-0 lead.

Ovi’s goal kicked off a wild first period.

Game 6 was a brilliant hockey game, and if we got even half that energy in Game 7, it was always going to be a doozy.

Devante Smith-Pelly, who was the hero in Game 6, made quite the sacrifice after getting drilled in the head with slapshot off the stick of Ryan McDonagh. Smith-Pelly remained down before getting helped off the ice and down the tunnel to the room.

He returned a short time later.

The period also featured a spirited scrap between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn. The two exchanged pleasantries earlier in the period in a scuffle after the whistle, where Coburn ripped off Wilson’s helmet and both were handed penalties.

When their time in the sin bin ran out, each exited the penalty box and immediately tried to knock each other’s head off.

Wilson and Coburn were involved in much of the fun in the first.

Wilson’s hit on Chris Kunitz helped set up the rush that led to Ovechkin’s goal.

Coburn, meanwhile, was trying to collect all the Capitals gear he could in the period. After ripping off Wilson’s helmet, he then stole Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s jersey right off his back in the same scuffle.

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Lightning meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
• Stream here
Series preview
Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most
Lightning don’t expect Kucherov to be ‘invisible’ in Game 7
Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
Barry Trotz takes his turn at the Capitals’ hot lap ahead of Game 7
Ovechkin, Capitals prepare for ‘biggest game of life’
Game 7 history for Ovechkin’s Capitals, Stamkos’ Lightning
•  What the Capitals mean to the D.C. community

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Ovechkin, Capitals prepare for ‘biggest game of life’

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is closer than ever to playing for the Stanley Cup, and he’s determined to make the most of the opportunity.

”I’ve never been in this position before,” he said Tuesday, looking ahead to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The winner Wednesday night earns a berth in the Stanley Cup Final opposite the Vegas Golden Knights, who will try for hockey’s biggest prize in their inaugural season.

Ovechkin and the Caps are hoping to shed a label as playoff underachievers, a franchise that dazzles during the regular season only to disappoint at the most important time of the year.

”I’m excited. We’re all excited. … We all want to be in this position and move forward,” said Ovechkin, who is playing in the conference final for the first time during his prolific 13-year career.

”(Wednesday night) is probably biggest game in my life, this team, organization probably. … We still haven’t reached our goal. Tomorrow is going to be a huge step forward.”

Not if the Lightning have their way.

Tampa Bay is playing Game 7 in the conference final for the third time in four years. It beat the New York Rangers on the road to advance to the 2015 Cup Final, but fell short the following year against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

”Experience is always a good thing, but it’s nothing I’m going to sit and lean on,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-1 in Game 7s during his career. ”It’s about doing your job at the highest level you possibly can.”

Washington forced Wednesday’s winner-take-all matchup with a dominating 3-0 victory in Game 6.

In a series where home ice has not been a clear advantage, the Lightning are hoping it provides an edge in Game 7.

Washington won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa, then dropped the next two at home. The Capitals are 7-2 on the road this postseason.

”When you get this deep into a series, everyone knows each other by heart. Now it really comes down to a little bit of will. You have to will yourself for this moment,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

”I do like the fact there will be 19,000 people helping us, to will us to victory. I want the guys to enjoy the game. It will be a phenomenal experience. … You just have to remember, don’t let the game get bigger than it really is. Go out there, execute, leave everything out there and we’ll see what happens.”

This will be Washington’s 11th Game 7 since the start of the 2008 playoffs, most among all NHL teams in that span. None of them, however, have been for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after Monday night’s win in Washington that there’s no other team he has coached that he would rather lead into a seventh game.

”We just keep taking whatever challenge is thrown at us and build off it. This group doesn’t waver. It has a spirit about it, a strong spirit,” he said.

”This team has done a lot of special things this year, it’s grown, it continues to do that,” Trotz added. ”What an opportunity going into Tampa. … We’ll see if we can earn the right to keep playing.”

And while that undoubtedly would be a major breakthrough for Ovechkin, Trotz reiterated the Capitals all have a lot invested.

”The opportunity is not only for Alex, but for everybody,” he said. ”Everybody that gets a chance to be in a Game 7, which will allow you to go to the finals. It’s exciting, it’s fun.”

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey