Capitals’ shot blocking part of all-in mentality fueling Stanley Cup run

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LAS VEGAS — Since Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has been one of the many issues that the Vegas Golden Knights have been unable to solve.

Vegas has found it difficult to create chaos in front of Holtby’s net and the Washington netminder has been able to see many of the shots he’s faced. 

Those shots that don’t get through to Holtby are one of those issues facing the Golden Knights.

Through four games, the Capitals have blocked 86 shots to Vegas’ 42. Even Alex Ovechkin, who blocked 21 shots during the regular season, has blocked four in the Final.

“If you want to win, you gotta do the not-so-sexy things and that’s one of the things,” said Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly. “It’s not exactly fun, but you gotta do if you really want to win. Everyone is on board with doing those things.”

It’s not just a simple act of dropping to the ice. Positioning plays a big part in a player deciding whether to get in the way of a shot. You don’t want to screen your own goaltender, but it’s a split-second decision, one that should you decide against it, could end up with a goal against. That’s why Holtby and Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray have focused a lot on seeing around screens from opponents and teammates this season.

“Obviously it’s tough sometimes when you get three or four guys in front, but we just want to get the guys confident who are out there to block a shot that we’re going to fight to see around them and that we’re working together as a unit,” Holtby said.

The inability to get shots through on net due to the Capitals’ commitment to blocking everything should cause the Golden Knights to alter their offensive zone tactics a bit. Getting shots off quicker, fakes and better puck movement are ways to improve in that area. Or, you could take Alex Tuch’s advice.

“If you shoot hard it doesn’t feel too good to block it, so maybe they’ll think twice about blocking it next time,” he said.

A collective effort to sacrifice the body and block shots is another way that the Capitals’ have bought into an all-in mentality under head coach Barry Trotz. It’s a big reason why they’re one win away from capturing their first Stanley Cup.

“If I’m being honest, it’s always all in. We’ve just executed it better than we have in the past,” said defenseman John Carlson. “There’s a big trickle down effect with things like that. Everyone’s doing it and everyone’s leading by example. The more leaders you can slot into the top of the totem pole that are doing whatever it takes, that’s big for the rest of the guys and the effect that it has in terms of confidence and togetherness.”

Previous Capitals teams may have had a similar mentality, but the end result wasn’t a positive. Here they are, still doing those same things and it’s worked through two extra months of hockey and put them on the cusp of a championship. This season wasn’t an easy one for Washington, which has made each victory a little more satisfying.

“I remember at the beginning of the everybody was saying we would struggle to make the playoffs. Even halfway through the year we really hadn’t gotten much traction in terms of a lineup or some guys were still trying to figure out where they fit in and what their role was,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think the last couple of years winning came a lot easier to us and we were supposed to win. I think maybe we didn’t enjoy winning as much as we did this year because it came easier. This year, when it was more of a struggle to grind out wins, it was more enjoyable for the guys. 

“The last couple of years we had a lot of pressure on us to win because we were supposed to win and it probably affected us in a negative way at times.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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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.