AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Special teams have been a strong suit for the Washington Capitals in recent years. Last season, the Caps finished fifth in the league in the power play and second in the league in penalty kill. There were several factors that allowed the Caps’ special teams to be so effective, factors that persist this season, despite the recent power play goals against and failed power play conversions.
Ever since the 2008-09 season, the Capitals’ power play has been a force of nature that teams around the league have dreaded to defend against. In fact, the 2012-13 Capitals power play had an effectiveness of 26.8%, which is the third best power play of all-time, and the best in the past 25 years. The 2014-15 Caps power play had a 25.3% effectiveness, which is the fourth best of any team in the past 25 years.
The main threats that the Caps’ power play pose are their diversity in their scoring and their player movement around the perimeter. Washington goes into a 1-3-1 power play when they’re able to set up the half ice, and will rotate their guys depending on how the other team is killing the penalty. The standard set-up involves four forwards and a defenseman who isn’t afraid to shoot the puck. Because of the 1-3-1 set-up, teams will try to set up a diamond formation inside the Caps perimeter to best put pressure on all of the Caps players, and to try to keep the puck on the outside.
Most of the Capitals’ power play goals come from one of three ways: an Ovechkin shot from between the left hash-marks and the top of the circle, a quick passing play from the man below the goal line to the man in the center of the opposing team’s diamond, or a shot from the defenseman up top which can either get deflected or beat a screened goaltender.
The Ovechkin shot is what a lot of teams will focus on primarily because of the accuracy and power that he can generate on a one-timer slapshot. Teams that set up the diamond have the ability to double-team Ovi by sending their top and left defender to take time and space away from him. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Caps, because it opens up other options in the offensive zone, such as passing the puck back to the point or wrapping it around the boards to the man down low.
T.J. Oshie is the most recent starting forward to be stationed in the middle of the opposition’s diamond. In the past, players such as Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward would park themselves in the middle of the zone to either get a quick pass from the low man or generate traffic in front of the net to give the point a shooting opportunity. Brouwer got many of his goals in his 20 goal season with the Caps by being in this position and burying pucks in the net on a one-timer from between the circles.
In seasons prior, Mike Green would be the offensive-defenseman who would sit at the point on the power play. After moving onto the Detroit Red Wings, that position has been filled by both John Carlson, and more recently Matt Niskanen. Whoever sits at the point has to be able to feed Ovechkin by getting the puck to the sweet spot. He also has to be able to shoot the puck through traffic to get a deflection or generate a rebound for the center guy.
The Caps’ power play hasn’t been as effective as it was in the past ever since the All-Star break last season. As far as strategy goes, not much has changed with their plays or their personnel. When the Caps are able to set up their power play strategy, oftentimes they’re able to generate good scoring opportunities and goals. However, teams have taken a different approach to defend against the Caps’ power play.
Primarily, the way that teams nullify the Caps on the power play is by not allowing them to set up in the offensive zone at all. One of the biggest struggles recently for the Caps is their inability to set up the half-ice, or wasting 45 seconds to a minute trying to set up. Other teams will play aggressively at their own blue line to stop the Caps from entering the zone without dumping the puck. If the Caps do dump the puck, the other team will have one guy sitting low to get there first and immediately ice the puck down to the Caps’ end. Washington has tried to counter this with the “slingshot” method of entering the zone, where a player will skate up to the blue line then pass it back to a trailing man so that he can enter the zone with momentum, but oftentimes the puck is poke-checked away or stolen.
If the Caps are able to set up their power play, teams will play a more aggressive style of penalty kill to force passes and take time and space away from the Caps’ offense. A good example of this can be found in the second round series against Pittsburgh last season. The Penguins, who have a naturally aggressive penalty kill, would set up the diamond inside the Caps’ perimeter, but would send one guy out to pressure the man with the puck. This would force the Caps to make plays quicker, causing more mistakes and giving the Penguins the opportunity to intercept passes.
So far this season, the Caps have two power play goals on 16 power play opportunities, putting them at 12.5% effectiveness. Something needs to be done to address the problem of entering the zone and reducing giveaways on the power play so that the Caps can go back to having one of the most effective power plays in the league.
The Capitals’ penalty kill last season was 85.2% effective, second only to Anaheim in the entire league. As far as their style goes, the Caps have a pretty generic set-up: a box that isn’t too collapsed in on itself, but isn’t too wide to allow for plays inside the perimeter. Whoever in the box is closest to the man with the puck will move outward a little bit to put some pressure on the offense and force them to make a pass. Primarily, the objective of the Caps’ penalty kill is to force the opposition to stay outside in their perimeter and to prevent them from making plays inside. Ideally, this will leave the opponent with only the option to shoot the puck from the point. The two forwards at the top of the box will then have the opportunity to block the shot and clear the zone.
For this Capitals team, the penalty kill lines are what made their PK so effective last season. One huge factor that plays in the Caps’ favor is their utilization of depth players to kill off penalties.
Guys like Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Daniel Winnik, and recently Lars Eller are the go-to penalty killers that are almost always started when the Caps go a man down, and none of them are afraid to throw their body in the way of the shot from the point. The dichotomy of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson/Daniel Winnik works in the Caps’ favor when they’re able to clear the puck. Wilson or Winnik plays the role of a stay-at-home forward who will usually sit at center ice, while Jay Beagle uses his speed and quickness to forecheck while a man down. Beagle won’t go for a shot while in the offensive zone, but will go to the corner and hold the puck against the boards to kill off precious time while the lines change.
On the back-end, players like Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner will usually be seen on the ice when Washington is a man down. Their objective is to force the play to the outside towards the corners, intercept passes that go through the middle, and to clear the rebounds after Holtby makes a save.
Aside from the shut-out against the Colorado Avalanche, the beginning of the season looks dismal for the Caps’ penalty kill. In four of their first five games, the Caps have given up a power play goal against the opposition. At this point in the season, the Caps are only 71.4% effective on the penalty kill, tied at 26th in the league.
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One of the biggest issues facing the Caps on their penalty kill is the inability to clear the puck after the other team generates a scoring chance. The rebound control by the defensemen hasn’t been as good as it should be, and the opposition is getting multiple chances to score on Holtby after getting shots through.
Another big factor that other teams are capitalizing on is using the man in the center to redirect a shot from the point on net. Two of the goals against that the Caps have faced have come from deflections, both of which were shots that could have been blocked by the forwards at the top of the box. By either taking care of the man in the center, or blocking the shot so that it doesn’t get through, the Capitals can hinder the other team’s ability to score this way.
The 2016-17 season is still young, and it is probably too early to start worrying about the effectiveness of the power play and penalty kill. Usually, special teams are streaky, and the Caps have had plenty of recent good streaks in their special teams. With such a small sample size, it’s impossible to say whether the Caps need to change something with their special teams, or if this is just anomalous.
There have been some personnel changes recently as well. Jason Chimera was a go-to penalty killer, and Lars Eller is still adjusting to the new system. At the beginning of last season, the Caps penalty kill was about the same as it was the year before, so there were no readjustments that had to be made. Perhaps the Caps just need time for their special teams to settle in and get used to playing with each other. With 77 games left in the regular season, the Caps still have plenty of time to figure out how to approach the power play and penalty kill.
By Justin Green