The Washington Capitals are being falsely imprisoned.
For over a year now, between former head coach Bruce Boudreau’s switch from a freewheeling offensive system to a defensive-minded one in December 2010 and the continuation of that hard-line defensive system under current head coach Dale Hunter, the Caps have been handcuffed by a style of play that has hindered them. No longer are the Caps the high-flying juggernaut that left fans worldwide spellbound; they are now a shell of their former selves, retreating into that shell when holding a lead instead of pushing the tempo.
If it was evident that the Caps never fully acclimated themselves to Boudreau’s new style – which was more of a hybrid system as the team transitioned – then it is painfully obvious that the Caps as currently comprised are not suited for Hunter’s offense-through-defense game plan. The Caps are suffering from an identity crisis and with time running out on the regular season and the possibility of the postseason, it is time to release them from their shackles and let them play fast and loose as they are built to do.
Boudreau’s new defensive scheme was reactionary; the Caps’ offensive well had run dry. The team was having trouble scoring compared to record-breaking seasons of the recent past and Boudreau believed that being more responsible defensively would lead to long-term success, especially in the postseason, where games are tight.
Yet, just because Boudreau’s new look was implemented due to a lack of scoring did not mean that the Caps could not score within its confines. Washington overcame the eight-game losing streak that was the catalyst for the change and earned its second-consecutive Eastern Conference regular season championship. Unfortunately and perhaps unexpectedly, in the postseason, where Boudreau’s system was supposed to be perfected, the Caps fell apart as they could neither score nor stop the Tampa Bay Lightning as they were unceremoniously swept out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Coincidentally, Washington saw its greatest success this season by playing a more open game. The 7-0-0 stretch that left the Caps as the last remaining unbeaten team in the NHL was an ode to the past: they scored 30 goals in those seven games (4.28 G/G), gave up chances (allowed just under 33 shots per game) and played sloppy. yet effective hockey. In a small-scale replica of the season before, the offense eventually disappeared and by the end of November, so did Boudreau as he was fired after a 5-9-1 tailspin.
Upon Hunter’s arrival, he made it abundantly clear that he did not believe in “run-and-gun” hockey and that the Caps’ focus would be on defensive responsibility. Hunter’s style of play involves a chip-and-chase strategy, which leads to an aggressive forecheck that creates offensive opportunities off turnovers. It has been neither exciting nor effective; the Caps are a sub-.500 team under Hunter (including overtime losses) and are averaging about 2.5 goals per game (they averaged 2.66 G/G during the 15-game stretch that led to Boudreau’s demise). More importantly, the defensive system has been anything but; Washington is allowing 2.78 goals per game, which puts it in the bottom third of the league in that regard. The exhilarating rush – the style that the Caps are built to play and the feeling their fans received while watching it – is being constricted by an archaic scheme that both are simply not responding to.
There are four games remaining in the regular season and these Caps, normally accustomed to having their playoff berth already clinched, are in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in five years. What got them to the playoffs was the “run-and-gun” style that Hunter abhors, one that Boudreau admitted he was wrong to move away from. While there have been flashes of hope, what Hunter has done has simply not worked enough. Thursday’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Boston Bruins comes to mind; despite the win, the Caps had nine shots through 40 minutes, which does not lend well to winning must-win games down the stretch.
For the next week and a half, Hunter needs to release the Caps from their captivity and allow them to revert back to the style of play that made them successful long before he arrived.
It is time to let the inmates run the asylum.