Few expected the drastic difference in the 2011-12 Washington Capitals from game 82 of the regular season to Game 1 of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Dale Hunter’s team featured a different brand of intensity, and even if the structure of shot-blocking and defensive hockey was the same, it looked like the Caps flipped a switch when it mattered.
Fast forward to Game 1 against the New York Rangers on Thursday night, and the Caps on the ice at Verizon Center looked like the same team that finished the season 10-1-1. It was evidence of the expected: that coach Adam Oates‘ system isn’t any different in the playoffs than it was during the 48-game regular season.
“There’s no need to change anything or do anything different,” defenseman Mike Green said. “It’s playoffs; if there’s a chance to block a shot you do it, but other than that we stick to the same thing we’ve been doing all season.”
Or at least for the past two months since Oates‘ tactics started developing consistent results, on the ice and in the standings. While Washington went 6-4-2 to finish the regular season a year ago, this group had the confidence of knowing playing this way worked.
“The coaching staff’s done a good job of implementing a system and sticking to it,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “You take the regular season to learn it, to perfect it and it should just carry over to playoffs. Playoffs isn’t the time to change major things.”
Philosophically, the Caps didn’t change major things under Hunter once the playoffs began, Oates argued. Instead, he pointed to goaltender Braden Holtby as the “big difference.”
But it was clear they played on another level. Since winning was the only option to make the playoffs this season, the Caps are accustomed to desperation and have been at peak performance for a while now.
“I think in the playoffs we don’t try to make mistakes,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “If we don’t have a play, we just make a simple and take another chance. But right now if we have a chance to make a play, we use it and we’re gonna make a play. Of course the system is different, but if we do right thing it’s working.”
The confidence built from seeing it work is an added advantage. But Oates wouldn’t have his team suddenly playing a different way even if that weren’t the case.
“I don’t think any team changes their structure now. No way,” he said. “You work all year long to do something. You don’t change it. What you change is just the decisions guys make or where you put the puck. Some of your reads. When a guy makes a bad read or makes a mistake you try to coach him through it for the next time. But the structure doesn’t change.”
Game 1 wasn’t the quintessential Caps victory sparked by neutral zone turnovers and Ovechkin scoring with a blast on the power play.
But it didn’t have to be; the idea is instead controlling the pace of games.
“We’re one game in right now, but I think that it forces them to play a game that they don’t want to play,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “This is a comfortable system now. We’ve been under it for quite a few months and we’re getting the hang of it and we’re starting to see the positives that come with playing it.”
Hendricks singled out eliminating odd-man rushes as one key. The Caps’ aim is to take away the Rangers‘ speed and keep them from scoring off the rush.
“When you take that away, you start scrambling a little,” he said. “Your routes start to change. Forwards are in the positions the defense aren’t used to seeing. They’re trying to move around, they’re trying to get more open and it just causes more chaos on their end.”
The Bruins experienced plenty of chaos in last year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals, not used to playing the drag-it-out style the Caps started to play. The difference, Hendricks said, between then and now, is he and his teammates aren’t giving opponents the red line, something that leads to more turnovers and more offensive opportunities.
Doing that same thing well for the past 20-plus games has allowed it to become muscle memory for players.
“When you stick to the system throughout the whole season and throughout playoffs, you can just play,” Oleksy said. “You can just react. You don’t have to over-think it.”
It’s much more comfortable than flipping a switch and trying to block every shot. It’s all instinct now for the Caps, who also realize things aren’t exactly like the regular season.
“Obviously the playoffs are a little different: The intensity is a little higher, you’ve got to make sure we stick with it,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We have a game plan, we have a system and we got to make sure we follow that.”
It’s the same game plan they had for a long time. And there’s no doubt it has been working. So why change anything?
“We’re a tough team to play against, for anybody,” Oleksy said. “It takes time to learn a new system and things like that and you don’t want to change things going into playoffs. It takes the regular season to perfect it, and I think that showed through the last stretch of the season and into now.”