It is well-documented that Capitals defenseman Mike Green sometimes struggles to get out of the way of opposing forecheckers. It’s part of life in the NHL, but a guy with that much skill sometimes assumes he can escape trouble at will. And often he can. Then there are nights like Monday’s Eastern Conference semifinal Game 2 against the New York Rangers.
You almost had to cringe as Green took one big hit after another in the first period. Ryan Callahan got him twice. Derek Stepan unloaded on him, too. It’s no secret that is part of New York’s strategy. You can almost hear coach John Tortorella pounding a podium during a team meeting and telling his players to hit Green over and over and over. Stepan, remember, was the man who knocked Green out the rest of last regular season with a concussion during a Feb. 25, 2011 game at Verizon Center. This is nothing new. That one seemed a bit dirty, to be honest, as Stepan caught him up around the jaw with a shoulder. But every hit during Monday’s game appeared clean as a whistle.
And Green was far from the only defenseman getting pounded. Karl Alzner took a big hit early. Roman Hamrlik was under siege during one long shift in the second period. The Caps adjusted and eventually won the game, 3-2. But can they really withstand those repeated blows? Washington had a similar strategy against Boston in the first round and eventually it paid dividends against Bruins star Zdeno Chara, who appeared to wear down. How do you neutralize it?
“I think that if we can get them slowed up through the neutral zone a little bit, and not let them come through the neutral zone with so much speed, that will give us a little bit more time,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “Then we’ve just got to go back a little bit harder. When they’re coming hard on like that, you’ve got to move the puck quick. They’re coming. That’s the way it is in the playoffs.”
The temptation is to take advantage of New York’s forecheckers and use that aggressiveness against them. Good in theory. And you might be able to catch them in the middle sometimes. But their defenseman are, for the most part, all really good skaters. They can pinch and take away options – passes to wingers are made difficult for Washington’s blueliners - and get back up the ice fast. Doesn’t hurt that the Rangers forwards cover up well for their defensemen when they do pinch into the zone. That means it’s up to the Caps defensemen to avoid contact, make good decision and get it out themselves.
“I'm sure our “D” are wanting us to hold up a little more and not let them get those free hits,” forward Brooks Laich said. “Certainly it's a game plan of ours, as it was last series, to wear their D-men down. Always make them turn and go back for the puck is one way to do it. If you do that enough times during the course of a game and the course of a series, you're just going to get tired of it and frustrated and maybe there's one time when you cheat a little bit and we capitalize on it. You don't know when it's going to be but you just hope that every finished check is an investment in the series and at some point it will pay off.”
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