Bruins beat Caps: A lesson in playing styles
The Capitals got an early season lesson that it takes more than talent to win in the NHL.
In hockey though, it is not always about the talent. At the top of the league, the difference between Presidents’ Trophies and Stanley Cups comes down to effort, scheme, structure, discipline and playing steady hockey.
Here, the Capitals may be lacking.
For contrast, look at the Boston Bruins, who beat Washington 3-1 at Verizon Center on Tuesday night.
The Bruins are not going to be as flashy or prolific as the Capitals but they play a steady style of hockey that has matured over the past couple of years. They are a defensive team that plays with a focus on puck possession; they are solid through the neutral zone and organized in the offensive end. They have the ability to breakout and be flashy, but overall it is just not in their nature.
“We are more of a chip and chase territorial team, try to be strong on puck and grind out wins and be strong defensively first and then move up the ice from there,” Bruins’ forward Shawn Thornton said.
The Capitals' style of hockey is not quite the total opposite, but it is close. Just about the only things that the head coaches, Claude Julien and Bruce Boudreau, have in common is that they both have had success in the coaching in the AHL and they both are bald.
Washington plays a wide open game. The skill on the roster leads to an offensive charge that sometimes is a thing of beauty and sometimes utterly frustrating. The Capitals like the two-line pass, which sometimes leads to trouble in the neutral zone and gaining the blue line, especially against a trapping team like Boston that defends entrance to the zone very well. The Caps forecheck extremely well. Forwards Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble are perpetual nuisances to teams coming out of their defensive zones and they make up nicely on the back check. It is vertical hockey. It is Boudreau hockey.
“We have got our style. They got theirs. They got talent and they like to play a wide-open game and expose it and they like to play that game. We don't,” Julien said.
Boston played very well in the neutral zone on Tuesday, limiting the Capitals breakout opportunities and the ability to use their speed. The two-line breakout passes Washington likes so much died on the opposite blue line and Boston retrieved to go back the other way.
“Give them credit. They have always been one of the hardest teams in the league to beat when they have a lead and they are pretty good at it,” Boudreau said of the Bruins. “I didn't think that it was a game where we were just circling and looking for things to happen. I thought that they gave an honest effort tonight.”
The Bruins were stronger on the boards, as evidenced by the first goal of the game. Hulking winger Milan Lucic drew two Capitals to the boards, won the puck and zipped it through the neutral zone to forward Nathan Horton to rush down the right wing. Boston center David Krejci trailed down the slot and Horton found him right in front of Michal Neuvirth who did not stand much of a chance as the Bruins took a 1-0 lead at 9:12 in the first period.
“We weren’t in our zone too much,” forward Jason Chimera said. “We had a tough time along the boards, but that happens against a good team like the Bruins.”
The style and tone of each team is embodied in its coach and captain. Alexander Ovechkin and Boudreau are intense and sometimes quirky with a flair for the dramatic. It is a bit of an unbalanced approach but has worked well enough in the last three regular seasons.
“They are very offensive oriented, very aggressive. They are that kind of team that can play that way and we play our way,” Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said.
On the other side, Chara and Julien are no-nonsense grinders. They prefer steady over dramatic, structure over flair. Unlike Boudreau and Ovechkin, you will not find Chara or Julien in entertaining commercials.
“We try to be steady, we try to play the same way and play our style and our identity and be a hard team to play against,” Chara said. “[Julien] has, for sure, something to say in that and makes sure that we play in the system but it is our responsibility as players to be accountable to each other.”
That may be the biggest difference between the two teams. Where Julien’s squads almost always play within the system, to either good or bad effect, Boudreau has trouble reining in freelancing of his offensive minded stars, leading to a distorted and ineffective game, effort or not, like the one played on Tuesday night.
It could be a different story on Thursday night in the backend of the home-and-home in Boston. Tuesday was the first time since 2006 that Boston beat Washington in regulation time, a span of nine games (6-1-2). But the comparison between the teams does highlight the deficiencies in the Capitals approach, weak areas that can be exploited if the opponent has the talent and structure to take advantage.
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