With a quarter of the season in the books, there are many things Caps fans should be excited about. The Capitals are 3rd in the knife-fight and powerhouse Metropolitan Division. Alex Ovechkin notched his 16th career hat trick and will likely pass 50 goals in his 4th straight season. Braden Holtby is doing his thing and rocking 10 wins and a .920 save percentage. Marcus Johansson has the 2nd most goals and 5th most assists on the team and is proving to be an excellent signing. Plus, the Caps have 4 days off to recover from injuries, exhaustion, and a tryptophan laden Thanksgiving.
But there is cause for concern, and the special teams play has been dubious at best. The Caps rank 18th in power play percentage, and 16th in penalty kill percentage; last season they were 5th in power play and 2nd in penalty kill. What happened?
We all know the basic principle of the Caps power play: find a way to get an Ovie shot from the Ovie spot, or another type of one-timer. Part of the reason last year’s team was so effective was due to smart face off positioning, solid zone entries, and a 1-3-1 scheme that is actually a remnant of the Adam Oates days. Additionally, John Carlson’s point play compared to Matt Niskanen’s was significantly better, so having him quarterback the first unit was a smart decision by the coach staff.
Compared to last season, the face off positioning tactics are the same, their zone entries still rely on the single swing, and the 1-3-1 system is still in tact. What gives?
For starters, it could be that other teams are simply getting smarter about playing the Capitals when on the PK. They know everything runs through Backstrom, Carlson, and Ovie, and with an ailing TJ Oshie, the Capitals might have to switch up their scheme to keep other teams on their toes. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery; most teams now have a 1-3-1 power play of their own. This means the teams penalty killers practice against this same scheme, so they’re ready for it come game day.
Speaking of John Carlson, it might be time to switch up the look on the power play to another defenseman. Dmitry Orlov would be my pick to fill this spot. During the game against the Colorado Avalanche, where the Capitals reversed their 0 for 8 power play woes, Orlov quarterbacked and set the tone early by bombing shots instead of immediately passing to Ovechkin.
After the Orlov shot option was established, the Avalanche had to respect it and immediately make changes to counteract it. Eventually, Orlov gets the puck to Ovechkin on a slap pass and Colorado is scrambling when Ovie scores. Additionally, after Ovechkin’s goal, the Avalanche cheated towards him and left TJ Oshie open in the slot for a power play goal of his own.
Translation? Orlov’s shoot first mentality could shake things up, and leave other players open for goals. Maybe Orlov could score some too and I won’t say no to that. Even if Barry Trotz keeps John Carlson or Matt Niskanen to quarterback, the point player needs to shoot more to establish that threat and confuse defenses.
The Caps play a diamond defensive scheme when they penalty kill: one tracking player up top with a triangle defense down low. But the Capitals play an extremely aggressive version of the diamond. If there’s a chance that a player can grab the puck, they’ll go for it, especially when it’s close to the blue line. One prime example is a short handed goal from their game against Chicago. Matt Niskanen dives to get the puck out of the zone, chaos ensues, Oshie and Beagle end up in a 2-on-1, and Beagle scores.
But this over aggressiveness can also lead to goals against. In the clip immediately after Beagles short-handed goal, the Capitals are short-handed again. This time, Tom Wilson desperately harangues the defenders at the blue line, but in his efforts to poke the puck away, a huge swath of space is open up top, and with some one touch passing ends up on the other side of the ice. Daniel Winnik rushes Brian Campbell, but it’s too late, and Campbell rockets the puck over Holtby’s glove.
The Capitals have 2 short-handed goals this season, which is tied with a bunch of other teams for 6th overall. But one way to solve the penalty killing woes is to not take penalties. Tom Wilson leads the way with 21 minutes in penalties, but as a team they’ve had to kill 69 penalties (nice). Carolina, who leads the league in penalty kill percentage, has only had to kill 52 penalties.
The other solution may be in goaltending, or tinkering with the lines. For example, St. Louis has the 2nd ranked penalty kill in the league, even though they’ve had to kill the most penalties at 86 (Calgary, who has 85, is ranked 29th overall). Jake Allen hasn’t exactly been stellar in goal, but his numbers are comparable to Holtby’s. So Holtby’s play on the penalty kill (or generally) could be up for a bit of debate. In terms of line tinkering, we know it’s a rotating cast of Oshie, Beagle, Backstrom, Wilson, Williams, Winnik, and nearly every member of their D-corps. With all the previous tinkering Trotz has been doing this season with the lines, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him tinker some more to find some kind of chemistry.
While some of these statistics may seem dire, I would like to remind everyone we’re only a quarter of the way done with the season, and there’s plenty of time to course correct the special teams ship.
By Julia Karron