Nine straight games.
Pretty good for a team that folk said was in complete disarray and out of the Stanley Cup picture three months ago. The Caps current streak now exceeds its lowest point of the season, the eight-game losing streak in December that led up to the Winter Classic. The highest high is now greater than the lowest low.
And Washington is looking to get higher.
The questions have been about the offense. Why haven’t they been scoring? What is wrong with Ovie? Traditionally though, with this group and this coach, scoring has not been a problem and the Caps are showing signs of getting out of the doldrums that plagued them throughout the middle of the season in the scoring department. The defense this year has been surprisingly competent in front of young, solid goaltending. Through the nine-game win streak, Washington has given up 13 goals for an impressive 1.44 goals against per game.
The question becomes – can these new defensive dynamics lead the Caps to the Promised Land?
It is an interesting question. The defensive pairings at the beginning of the year, with Tom Poti and Tyler Sloan looking to take up big swaths of minutes behind the de facto No. 1 pair of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, have been more or less obliterated by trades and injury and a little bit of ineffectiveness. Scott Hannan and Dennis Wideman have been thrown into the mix and Green has missed more games than is probably comfortable for coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff. Dennis Wideman has come on in the last month and steadied the puck moving. But what happens when Green comes back to reclaim the big minutes he is used to and Wideman is taking up now.
There are many ways that NHL coaches like to deploy their pairings. The standard, relatively effective, approach is to have one offensive minded defenseman and one stay-at-home defensive minded one. Boudreau adheres to this as much as he can depending on injuries and game situations. Hence, the Green/Schultz top pair to start the year. Green is a one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and, up until Wideman and Arnott came to town, was the best of the limited options of puck movers on the team. Green’s scoring is down this year but his defense has been better … when he has been on the ice. He has been a hustler, showing more grit than his pretty-boy looks would lead you to believe he possessed.
Schultz, on the other hand, is like a statue. One of the best things that can be said about a stay-at-home defenseman is that you hardly ever end up noticing them. Yet, this year, Schultz has been completely unremarkable and that is not a backhanded compliment. His plus/minus through 61 games stands at a +3, acceptable but not top pair worthy. Green is a +6 but would probably be higher if he A) played more and B) was not sacrificing offense for defense to keep the team in the game when he was healthy during the Caps doldrums periods.
So, the envisioned top pair has been anything but.
The best pair this year has been the younglings, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. They fit Boudreau’s scheme well in pairing an offensive blue liner with one who is defense-first. The good thing about the Carlzner duo though is that each individual brings more balance to the pair than any other combinations the Caps have used this year.
Alzner is, of course, the defensive portion of this pair. He is a fair skater, has a good hockey IQ and the size to win battles in the corners and push net-minded opposing centers out of the slot in front of the crease. Yet, Alzner is a little bit underrated worth the luck on his stick. He of a good, and evolving, puck mover which is a skill that matures as a player does. He keeps his head up on the ice and is not sheepish of taking a shot from the point when the opportunity is obvious. Alzner does not have the mean streak that somebody like John Erskine or other young defensemen in the league, like Boston’s Adam McQuaid, but he is not opposed to giving a face wash to a pernicious opposing forward harrying his goaltender after the whistle. Alzner is a +14 on the year, second on among the defensemen.
Carlson is first at +16. He looks at times like a young Green (which is odd, considering that Green is only 25 years old). He is confident in moving the puck, he is fast, has a great shot and works extremely well with Alzner against the rush. Watch the two of them skating backwards and see how one will take a wing and the other will cover the slot, then switch when the puck goes to the other end of the ice. They have great awareness of each other and Boudreau refuses to separate them, with good reason.
They have become the de facto top pair and the most consistent Capitals this season.
Yet, it does not seem like they are the top pair, even if in reality they are. Whenever a team has a bona fide No. 1 defensemen, Green in this case, it is natural to call the top pair the one with the top defensemen. Yet, who really deserves the official No. 2 slot? Schultz is definitely a top four in the NHL, but a top two? Doubtful. Scott Hannan, a great communicator and decent puck mover in his own right, probably slots in best at a No. 3 or No. 4 himself. That leaves Wideman and Erskine.
Wideman has been used as a No. 1 and 2 this year. Most of that has to do with the fact that he was playing on the very shallow roster of the Florida Panthers but he has also slotted into the No. 1 spot in Green’s absence. What happens when Green comes back? Wideman and Green as a pair do not mix, for multiple reasons. Foremost, you want to break up your puck movers for maximum return on invested ice time. Yet, when you do that it means that one of them is going to go to the bottom pair and miss out on significant portions of ice time. You have to believe that will not be Green (unless Boudreau is trying to save him from physical destruction, which is a possibility).
There is a reason why qualifying players in NHL-speak always comes down to “he is a top-six forward” or “he is a top-four defensemen.” It is about rotations, amounts of shifts, rhythm on the ice, players knowing their roles and expected outcomes.
The only blue liner that the Caps have that is not a legitimate or fringe top four is Erskine. It will be sad to see the big fella get benched but it will probably happen when Green is healthy again. The options in front of Boudreau are then – pair Schultz or Hannan with Green and give them near top pair minutes and the other with Wideman and give them slightly better than bottom pair minutes.
It is a peculiar problem to have, especially in D.C. – too many quality defensemen. Defense in the NHL is like pitching in baseball; you can never have too much. That is evident with Green and Poti missing time this year and the need to bring in Hannan when they did (because of Poti) and Wideman (because of Green).
There are other questions in this defensive equation. For instance, if Erskine gets benched, where does the physicality in punishing opposing forwards in the corner come from? Who steps up for a big fight outside of Matt Bradley or Mike Hendricks? What will the power play look like between Green and Wideman (Green first unit, Wideman second, but how will Boudreau set it up?).
Also, when it comes down to defense, the Caps do not have the one absolute shutdown guy. There is no Zdeno Chara in this group, a player who is the no-brainer to get the call when the opposing top line is on the ice. Boudreau has been deploying Carlson and Alzner in this situation and it has been good but not necessarily airtight. There is an argument that good teams cannot win Stanley Cups without at least one top-tier scorer.
The question for the Caps – even with the defense has deep and solid as it has ever been, can they win the Cup without one top-tier defender? Yes, they have a top defensemen in Green but he does not qualify as an elite defender.
Any holes that Washington has on the blue line will be poked, measured, weighed and, if found wanting, torn down by the opposition. Can the Caps current composition make it through the marathon?