x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Washington Capitals, the secretaries of defence

Washington’s three-headed goalie system keeps the Capitals atop East for the play-offs.

Semyon Varlamov, above, has shared goal with rookies Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.
Semyon Varlamov, above, has shared goal with rookies Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.

Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' perennial 50-goal superstar, struggled to make it to 30 this season. Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin's silky-smooth playmaking centre, registered a points total in the mid-60s after surpassing 100 in 2009/10.

Mike Green, the Caps' offensively gifted defenceman who was nominated for the Norris Trophy last year, was limited to 49 games - and just 24 points - after suffering a couple of concussions. Washington's "other Russian Alex," the sublimely skilled Alexander Semin, missed almost 20 games with injuries and settled into the sub-par region of 50-plus points.

In other words, the explosive attack that launched Washington to the top of the Eastern Conference a season ago was not nearly as potent this season.

But you know what? The Caps are a better team for it, not to mention a much more dangerous play-off squad. No, they weren't as fun to watch this season, but the result was the same as the Capitals again skate into the post-season as the No 1 seed in the East.

The Caps did it with defence. Only one team in the East surrendered fewer goals than Washington (the Caps allowed 197 goals in 82 games, the Boston Bruins 195.) The only teams in the West to give up fewer goals were the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks (185) and the Nashville Predators (194).

Of course, the shift to defence did come at some cost. The Caps had 54 wins and 318 goals a year ago, and this season they have 48 victories and 224 goals. But in the play-offs, it is usually the teams that can win the 2-1 games that advance.

And the Capitals finished strong down the stretch - when the intensity is at its peak as the play-off race gets serious - winning 18 of their final 23 contests. Washington's improved defence also came with the team splitting time between the pipes over three goaltenders.

Semyon Varlamov, sidelined with injuries several times, started just 25 games. Rookies Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby had to carry the load, an unexpected twist for a team intent on cutting their goals against. While the three-goalie platoon system is rare in the NHL, whichever net-tender the Caps decide to start will be secure in the knowledge that the players in front of him are a defensively dedicated bunch.


This week in the NHL

Players of the week

• Loui Eriksson, Dallas. Eriksson, below, had three goals and seven points as the Stars pushed for the play-offs, but it was not enough.
• Jaroslav Halak, St Louis. A pair of wins, one via a shutout, and a 0.50 goals-against average to cap the season.
• Jason Spezza, Ottawa. If the happy-go-lucky centre played as well all season as he did in the final week, the Senators would not be in such a mess.

Teams of the week

• Buffalo Sabres. They surged into the play-offs on a four-game winning streak. Beware, Philadelphia, beware.
• Anaheim Ducks. Three consecutive victories to close out the season gave the Ducks home-ice advantage in the first round.

Duds of the week

• Sergei Bobrovsky, Philadelphia. A goals-against average of nearly 5.00 is not how the goalie wanted to go into the play-offs.
• Edmonton Oilers. For the second straight season, Edmonton finished last in the entire league.
• Travis Zajac, New Jersey. The Devils centre registered -5 rating last week.

Games of the week

• Chicago at Vancouver, today. The Canucks will want to make a Game 1 statement against the club that has knocked them out of the past two post-seasons.
• Los Angeles at San Jose, Thursday. It is a north California v south California showdown between the Sharks and Kings.
• Boston at Montreal, Monday. Expect Habs fans to boo Zdeno Chara mercilessly in Game 3, on behalf of injured winger Max Pacioretty.