The secret ingredient to the Caps' offense

The secret ingredient to the Caps' offense
December 9, 2013, 3:45 pm
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Caps top 5 plays of the week: 12.9.13

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) celebrates with left wing Jason Chimera (25).

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

As a player, Adam Oates prided himself on finishing an offensive opportunity with a perfect “last” pass.

As a coach, he recognizes that almost every offensive opportunity comes from the all-important “first” pass out of the defensive zone.

“Most important pass in hockey,” he says with a grin.

On Sunday night against the Rangers, the Capitals had one of their best “first pass” games of the season, exiting their defensive zone with precision and frequency.

The result was a complete 4-1 victory that did not feature a point by the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. The Caps are now second in the Eastern Conference with 92 goals, seventh in the NHL.

The Capitals’ coaching staff pays very close attention to the amount of time the team spends in its own zone. Depending on the opposition it can range anywhere between 25 and 35 percent of a game.

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According to hockeyanalysis.com, at even strength the Caps have spent 29.6 percent of their games in the defensive zone; 34 percent in the offensive zone and 36.4 percent in the neutral zone.

Last season those numbers were tilted the other way, with the Caps spending 34 percent in their defensive zone, 30.5 percent in the offensive zone and 35.5 percent in the neutral zone.

“Some teams are better forechecking teams than others,” Oates said. “The numbers can be skewed.”

Much of the Capitals’ success against the Rangers Sunday night was based on puck retrieval and positioning. The Caps went back to a first defense pairing of Karl Azner and John Carlson, a second unit of Mike Green and Nate Schmidt, and a third unit of Steve Oleksy and Dmitry Orlov, who played together for the first time.

 “If you’re in the right spot it’s amazing how a guy shoots wide and that allows us to get out of the zone one time easier,” Oates said. “They all add up.”

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Oleksy, who sat out the previous seven games as a healthy scratch, was particularly effective on Sunday night. In 16:57 of ice time he recorded one goal, one assist, one hit and three blocked shots while finishing a plus-2.

“You have to do what you can through practice,” Oleksy said of his mental and physical preparation. “There’s nothing like a game situation, but you have to work hard in practice and keep the conditioning up. The mental aspect is huge. Credit to my teammates for keeping me positive.”

Oleksy’s goal was the product of a strong forecheck by the Caps’ monster truck line of Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, which is slowly becoming one of the Caps’ most reliable and predictable lines.

“They play great for us night in and night out, no matter how many minutes they get,” Oleksy said. “As a defenseman you don’t want to face three guys like that, that’s for sure.”

It is an identity the Caps, who have always been known for their superior skill level, are starting to embrace. Oates said that as skilled as the Caps are on their top line, he’d like his team to be known as one that plays the same way every night.

“I would like teams to say that about us,” Oates said. “That we stick to the game plan no matter what.”

That game plan, short and simple, begins with that all-important first pass.

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