23 April, 2014


Dissecting the Caps’ Style: Tilting the Ice

Scotty Bowman emphasized speed for his Stanley Cup winning Montreal Canadiens. Herb Brooks preached conditioning for his 1980 Olympic gold-medal USA team. Up until last season, we thought we knew the playing style blueprint for Bruce Boudreau hockey clubs. But in about the middle of last season, while mired in a prolonged losing streak, Boudreau radically realigned his system for his skaters, jettisoning an attack-first approach for variants of trap hockey. He ‘uglified’ his attack. In 2011-12, we are likely to see Boudreau’s system evolve again.

If the Caps are going to make it to the Stanley Cup finals this year, it’s likely part of the impetus will come from greater acceptance of the playing philosophy set or adopted by head coach Bruce Boudreau. Last year, there was buzz about a serious shift to defense on the team. And the team, despite winning a lot of low-scoring, ‘ugly’ outcomes in the season’s second half, never seemed wholly comfortable with so radical a change. This year, Boudreau discussed with the Washington Post a hybrid system, combining the quick-break elements with the sense of defensive responsibility.

The Capitals’ Brooks Laich has played under Boudreau for almost five full seasons. He says the element or underlying characteristic that defines a Boudreau system or team’s style of play is pressure -– all over the ice.

“He always emphasizes moving your feet and moving the puck, but even when you don’t have the puck, taking time and space away,” Laich described it. “I think if you want to put a term on it, maybe try and ’tilt the ice,’ so that it always seems like we’re going downhill, ’cause we always want to put pressure on and make it very difficult for other teams to play against us.”

Laich said Boudreau isn’t the only coach he’s played under who followed that mantra, but other bench bosses haven’t emphasized it as much as Boudreau.

“His emphasis is always about taking time and space away when you don’t have the puck, and then when you do have the puck, move your feet, move the puck, and attack the net,” Laich said.

“It’s pressure defense,” Boudreau said, who also discussed the theory in his 2009 autobiography, Gabby. “We want to be the dictators of the way the game is played, I think. In the perfect world, we’d like to have the puck in their zone. So I believe that you don’t get that by having them bring the puck to you. So we’ve proven we can play that game if we have to, but it’s more fun playing it the other way.”

And, judging from Laich’s response, the players have a similar opinion of Boudreau’s pressure cooker system.

“Players love it. We love it. When you don’t have the puck, be aggressive, and get it right back. And when you do have the puck, attack and try and score,” Laich said when another reporter asked how the players under Boudreau respond to the style. “I’ve been on the other side of it –I’ve played against Bruce, and it always seems like his teams are bigger, stronger, faster, in better position, and it always seems like somebody’s in your face.”