As the Capitals teeter on the edge of another customary mid-winter swoon, one of their special teams’ units got a head start. The power play, once a vaunted powerhouse, has been sputtering for better than a month.
After ranking 29th in the National Hockey League for the month of December, the unit has stumbled into the new year, currently holding down the 12th spot in the league. While 19 other teams may pine for a power play as effective as Washington’s overall, standing outside the Top 10, even the Top 5, is an unusual circumstance for the Caps.
The man-advantage has been dreadful for the last six weeks. At this point, Washington may be better served to decline the penalty any time an opponent goes shorthanded. Obviously, that’s a joke, but at least it would keep the back-breaking shorthanded goals and the increasing home boo-birds at bay. So, how do the Capitals put the power back in their power play? Figuring out how to fix the power play first requires examining what isn’t working.
The number one criticism of the power play, from fans and commentators alike, is it has grown stale. The team sets up looking to feed Alex Ovechkin in his favorite spot near the left circle. Ovechkin is lethal from here, as his 256 career power play goals, many from this “office” will attest. However, when everyone in the arena, from opposing players to the peanut vendor, knows what is coming, the shot becomes much easier to defend.
As Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson pass the puck around the top of the umbrella formation looking to open up Ovechkin, it almost renders the man-advantage moot. There are fewer options for the defense to guard against. The power play becomes more dangerous when the puck gets down below the goal line and Backstrom looks for T.J. Oshie in the slot. Too often, though, they look for Old Reliable to bail them out.
Another way opponents are thwarting the Caps’ power play is by being increasingly aggressive. By extending pressure closer to Backstrom on the half-wall and Carlson at the point, teams are speeding up the decision-making of each player. Honestly, it is a mystery why, for years, teams let Backstrom, a master puck protector and passer, have time to survey the formation and pick them apart. Starting about this time last season, opponents, especially the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs, sent defenders to rush Backstrom into giving up the puck earlier than he would like. This often results in fumbles along the boards leading to easy clears or making John Carlson the decision maker. While Carlson is gifted offensively, his default setting is looking for Ovechkin. Getting the puck out of Backstrom’s hands early gives the penalty killers an advantage.
Of course, these two noted problems can’t even crop up if the Caps can’t set up the power play unit in the offensive zone. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the power play the last two seasons is the “slingshot” zone entry. In theory, the slingshot sees a rushing forward carry the puck through the neutral zone at a rate of speed which pushes defenders back, allowing the puck carrier to easily gain the blue line and set up the power play formation. Too often, though, dropping the puck backwards to onrushing forward allows the defense to stand up along the blueline, preventing the desired easy zone entry. It also forces the rest of the offensive players to wait at the blueline, erasing any forward momentum. In the event of a turnover, these players are in poor positions to catch a player going the other way. Recently, the coaching staff has started dropping back a second “slinger”, but that has only accomplished further frustrating fans.
For Saturday’s game against the Devils, Washington’s coaches made a few changes, hoping to jazz up the power play. They elevated Jakub Vrana to replace Evgeny Kuznetsov on the top unit. The top power play line also skated shorter shifts getting fresher legs on earlier in the two minutes. The results were mixed at best. Vrana was aggressive, shooting early on the first power play. This was a good start for a team that usually seeks the perfect power play shot. Vrana scored the lone power play goal of the night, but the man-advantage failed on four other attempts including squandering 43 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage. The most obvious evidence that further change is required is giving up a shorthanded goal for the second consecutive game.
Three suggestions could help get the power play back on track. For starters, the team needs to abandon the slingshot, as it clearly isn’t working. A traditional dump-and-chase entry can be effective IF forwards make puck retrieval the top priority. This requirement dovetails with suggestion number two: more personnel changes. Speedy puck retrievers like Carl Hagelin and Brendan Leipsic can better help establish the power play setup in the offensive zone. Their dogged work along the boards may also result in fewer one shot-and-done situations that have John Carlson spending half of a power play chasing clears that were all too easy for the penalty killers. Finally, as noted earlier, force-feeding Ovechkin in his office has grown stale. Why not move his office? Putting Ovechkin in the T.J. Oshie/Tom Wilson “bumper” spot in the slot would serve several purposes. It puts the team’s most dangerous shot and quickest release closer to the goal. Moving Ovechkin off the point could put a second defenseman, more adept than Ovechkin at holding the blueline, on the ice hopefully resulting in fewer clears. If the defense sags to choke off Ovechkin in the slot, Backstrom and the point men should have more room and time to operate. At the very least, such a move would be a new wrinkle for which opposing penalty killers would have to plan. What the Caps are doing now isn’t working well enough. This offense is too talented to struggle this much on the power play. If Head Coach Todd Reirden and his fellow metaphorical electricians can’t rewire the power play for more spark, Washington is wasting a key weapon.
By Bryan Hailey