Adam Oates wondered aloud Saturday night which was more important, the five goals the Washington Capitals scored against the Florida Panthers or the zero they surrendered.
What a welcome dilemma for the coach of the NHL's worst team.
In earning a league-low five points through its first 11 games, Washington failed to consistently apply some principles of Oates' new system. In routing Florida, though, the Capitals established a blueprint they hope will help produce wins, starting with a three-game road trip that opens in Florida on Tuesday.
Aggressive forechecking resulted in goals. They stayed out of the penalty box, for the most part. Defenders deftly navigated the Panthers' forecheck. And goalie Braden Holtby jumpstarted the offense with a superb pass that resulted in a goal.
"Very close," Oates said when asked whether Saturday's win serves as a model. "Obviously, I still think there are things we can clean up, as you can every game. But we did a lot of things well. We didn't give them a lot of chances, which is the goal."
The most encouraging sign, perhaps, was how Washington's first and third goals resulted from the type of aggressive forechecking Oates craves. Capitals forwards pressured Florida along the boards in the offensive zone, creating loose pucks that Washington put in the net.
The sequence that produced the first goal began when Washington center Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck into Florida's zone against four defenders. He dumped it behind the goal, and forwards Wojtek Wolski and Troy Brouwer chased it.
Wolski checked defender Erik Gudbranson, and Brouwer harassed forward Jerred Smithson. Brouwer forced Smithson into flicking a weak clearing attempt, which Capitals defenseman John Carlson one-timed off Brouwer and into the goal.
Washington's third goal, which forward Joel Ward scored, was similar. Forward Eric Fehr chased Gudbranson into the Panthers' corner, applying significant pressure. Capitals center Mathieu Perreault supplemented that by harassing two Panthers along the side board.
The puck squirted loose to Ward, who scored a low wrist shot to put Washington in control.
"The key, I think, is to put pressure on them and obviously hem them in a little bit," Ward said. "They kind of looked a little flat-footed at times and I thought we put some pretty good pressure on them."
Beyond that, the Capitals achieved general manager George McPhee's stated top priority of staying out of the penalty box. Florida had only two power plays, which tied a season low for Washington's opponents.
The Capitals beat Buffalo on Jan. 27 in the only other game in which they had to kill less than three power plays.
"It's hard to fight uphill battles," Oates said. "It's hard to be in the box a lot. And, you know what, obviously a lot of positives about tonight, and that's one of them."
The Capitals minimized defensive breakdowns, and Holtby ultimately wasn't tested by many difficult shots among Florida's 27. Washington still committed its share of turnovers that the Panthers turned into scoring chances, but Holtby bailed out his teammates each time.
"The type of shots they were, though, they were ones I know I have the capability to stop," Holtby said. "Traffic in front of the net was non-existent today because our forwards really took it to heart this last little while that we need to bear down on our end. It was outstanding tonight. We're going to need that moving forward."
Holtby also contributed to the scoring outburst with a long pass that sprung Brouwer for Washington's second goal. Oates expects his goalie to be part of the offense.
"That's a very heady play by him," Oates said. "It means he's involved in the game."
Add it all up, and the Capitals now know what it takes to realize Oates' vision for them. Now they have to apply that over and over and over.
"It's only one win," Oates said. "Obviously we needed it. Enjoy the moment and then get back to work."
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