Alex Ovechkin is going to set up shop at his off-wing dot and fire a one timer. That is undeniable. It’s the heart and soul of the Washington Capitals offense, and somehow no one can stop it.
Many teams have tried. The San Jose Sharks spent the bulk of their morning skate working on denying that exact play. Some penalty killers overplay that side. Everyone knows it’s coming and takes preemptive steps to stop it, and then they don’t.
That most obvious truth is perhaps the core of what Game Time readers should know about the Washington Capitals. They’re a deadly, quick strike offensive team backed by one of the best goaltenders in the world. They’re incredibly good. They’re very hard to outgun, though the Penguins did a pretty astonishing job of doing so in their 8-7 victory earlier this week.
By virtue of living in Washington, I’ve watched the Capitals in person nine times this season. Every time I watch them, I’m amazed at how well they move the puck, and how well their role players slot in to specific duties.
Former Blues play a huge role in that success. Taylor Chorney, with his two career St. Louis games played, is the stereotypical seventh defensemen. When he makes an appearance, fans sound the Chorn Horn. Prepare to hear that this evening, as offensive dynamo John Carlson is likely out with an injury.
Lars Eller is rounding into form as the third line center that many people hoped he would eventually be better than. Drafted one year after Patrik Berglund, Eller has become a Danish clone of his Swedish counterpart. Indeed, his career trajectory has easily vindicated the deal that saw him traded for Jaroslav Halak, even if Halak didn’t pan out the way that Blues fans dreamed he would.
And then, of course, there’s Daddy Osh. T.J. Oshie was an enigma in St. Louis. Perhaps the most beloved teen idol in Blues history, his clutch performances on the international stage consistently teased Blues fans with the possibility of a breakout offensive performance.
However, Oshie only once reached 20 goals or 60 points with the Blues. He put up a meager nine points in 30 playoff games, perhaps suggesting that he didn’t have the power to be the primary driver of a team’s offensive engine.
In Washington, of course, he’s a supplementary piece to the dynamic duo of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In that role, he’s flourished. He scored 26 goals in his first year in DC and is playing at a nearly 35-goal pace this season, suggesting that matchups with the opponent’s second defensive pairing are extremely beneficial to him.
Those defensive pairings will be a point of concern for the Blues. Robert Bortuzzo and Joel Edmundson seemed to struggle mightily to contain Ottawa’s best offensive players, and those players don’t approach the level to which the Capitals rise.
It’s also been my observation that Ovechkin tends to thrive against defensemen who rely on intellectual and positional strategies. While he may have his preferred spot on the ice, he also thrives at locating vacant areas and moving into empty spots.
Indeed, to counter that instinct, a physical challenge is the best way to throw Ovechkin off his game. While he doesn’t shy away from contact and is capable of dishing out as much as he receives, the Blues would be well served to try to encourage him to overcommit to that goal. To that end, re-forming the Edmundson/ Pietrangelo pairing would seem to be a way to provide a multi- dimensional challenge to the Ovechkin/Backstrom attack.
Generating offense in front of Braden Holtby is also no small task. Against Ottawa’s Mike Condon, it seemed that the Blues put a strong emphasis on opportunities from the point. Kevin Shattenkirk’s blast and Paul Stastny’s deflection paid dividends, but Holby is a very different Holtbeast.
With John Carlson out of the lineup, the Capitals will likely struggle to establish their puck control and transition game in the way that they prefer. The Blues, then, should focus on controlling the puck below the goal line and pressuring the Washington defense.
Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen are gifted outlet passers, but each is susceptible to untimely turnovers in their own end. If the Blues commit to the purest form of Hitchcock hockey and are relentless on the forecheck, they’re more likely to create increased lateral movement in Holtby that could open up better opportunities.
Tonight’s game, however, is no ordinary night on the road. I mentioned above that I’ve been to nine games in Washington. That’s on top of a preseason game and a World Cup pretournament game, six games in St. Louis (including the Winter Classic), an alumni game, four games in Philadelphia and one each in Carolina and New Jersey.
That makes 24 hockey games for me so far this season, and I mention it because hockey games have always felt like a welcoming and exciting place for me. I don’t feel unwelcome or uncertain at the rink. Since I was very small, the ice makes me feel home.
For many people, however, that’s not the case. As the Blues commendably celebrate their first Pride Night this evening, I wanted to be sure to carve out space to say that I hope, if you’re reading this, you can feel the same way I do.
I’ve been in locker rooms where horrible things were said. As a younger person, I said some of them. I regret that now, and I see that every person, regardless of his or her identity, has a place to contribute to this game and this community.
I hope very much that queer fans of the Blues, of the Capitals and of hockey in general take this opportunity to feel the embrace from the community. I trust Game Time to be committed to that mission, and I know Blues fans will be thrilled to have you.