It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here
What better time than now
-'Gorilla Radio', Rage Against The Machine
It's hard to re-make a team in the midst of a season. Usually, a system or scheme is taught during a team's training camp and periodically reinforced in practice throughout the season as lapses occur. Coming into a season with an idea of that system allows management and the team's coaches the ability to assess who fits the needs of the team and the system it will be running. Offensive-minded players may not be the best at following a strict defensive system just as a team of defensive minded players might not fit a run-and-gun style offense.
The 2010-2011 Washington Capitals are a team that is trying it the hard way. After starting the season where the previous (regular) season left off, scoring goals in an exciting fashion, the Caps' coaches (seemingly inexplicably to some) changed things up. Offense-minded Thomas Fleischmann was moved for a defensive defenseman. The Caps, last season's goal scoring champions became a Trap Defense team. Unfortunately, the learning curve has proven to be fairly steep.
On the defensive side of things, the system has been surprisingly successful. In the first 32 games of the season (up to the Caps embarrassing 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers on December 12th), the Caps GAA stood at 2.88. In the 19 games since, that number is down to an astonishing 1.95 goals against per game. While it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the Caps coaches decided to implement the neutral zone trap, it seems that it took until that Rangers game to fully buy into it.
On offense, things haven't gone nearly as well. The Caps goals-per-game average has dropped from 3.06 to 2.21 over the same 19 game span. They have been shut out 4 times over that stretch and have scored more than three goals only twice. It would be easy to blame the the power play, but it's been anemic all season. So why can't the Caps manage to score goals while playing the Trap?
In their previous life, the Caps were the hockey equivalent of a Fast-Break style basketball team: quick transitions from defense to offense and a tendency to get scoring chances directly from those rushes up the ice. Unfortunately, the trap defense requires all five players to clog up the neutral zone as the opposition attempts to break the puck into the Caps' zone. Knowing that they must re-group into this scheme when the opposition gains control of the puck, the Caps' Fast Break has begun to look like a Kamikaze run, with one or two players rushing the puck up the ice towards 4 opposition skaters while the rest play tentative hockey instead of following the play. It's a defensive-minded posture. Considering the Caps' tendency to shoot pucks (and miss the net with those shots) during the rush rather than establish a cycle, it's easy to see how a lack of aggressive skaters can lead to a lack of quality scoring chances. So how can this be remedied?
The trick is breaking the puck out of the defensive zone (and into the offensive zone) as a team (you know, rather than throwing the puck up the left side and watching Ovie go), getting the puck deep and establishing yourself low in the opposition's zone. With the puck low, there is time to regroup into the trap when the other team gets the puck, while still applying pressure with the forecheck. History has shown that skilled teams can succeed offensively while being dedicated on the defensive side of the puck (the Detroit Red Wings come to mind). It's no coincidence that the 3rd and 4th lines have looked more comfortable and created more pressure in the offensive end under the new defensive system; they're used to playing the gritty, 'get the puck deep' style that works with the Trap. Now it's up to the first two lines to follow that example.
In short, the Caps skilled players are attempting to play their old, exciting, run-and-gun offensive style while still showing dedication to the new defensive scheme they've been taught. Fortunately, there is still plenty of regular season left to figure things out and head into the post season on a high note. The question is, will the top lines be willing (or able) to make the changes necessary to succeed when it counts.
What better time to find out than now?