ARLINGTON, Va. — While the Washington Capitals are playing relatively strong hockey, winning their last four games, one area of their game has not clicked: The power play. Washington’s power play is 0-for-21 over the last eight games and is currently dead last in the NHL at 7%.
When the Capitals overhauled their coaching staff over the summer, a big storyline was how the coaching staff would give a fresh look to Washington’s power play. Spencer Carbery was in charge of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ power play for the last two seasons, and it was the second-best in the league during his time as an assistant coach, operating at a combined rate of 26.6%. He had elite talent at his hands by the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, so it made sense why it was so lethal.
However, the person who oversees the Capitals’ man-advantage is assistant coach Kirk Muller. Muller’s past with running power plays has had its fair share of ups and downs. He ran the St. Louis Blues’ power play from 2014 to 2016 and it was solid. The man-power advantage was the third best in the NHL at 21.9%.
Then he joined the Montreal Canadiens’ coaching staff and from 2016 to 2019, Montreal’s power play was 21st in the league at 18.1%. In Muller’s last season with the Habs, it was 30th in the NHL at 13.3% after being in the top 15 two seasons prior.
Last year with the Calgary Flames, Muller’s power play was ranked 19th in the NHL at 19.8%, and the year prior the Flames were ranked 10th in the league at 22.9%.
Now turning to his brief 15 game tenure in the nations’ capital and it’s safe to say the hopes of a fresh system have not delivered.
While it is easy to pinpoint the lack of movement and predictability of the man-advantage unit, by trying to get the puck over to Alex Ovechkin’s office at the left circle, Carbery addressed two areas of concern of where the man-advantage unit is lacking: Zone entries and puck retrievals.
“That’s where power play’s start for me. Usually when you’re struggling, you’re not able to enter and gain possession consistently,” Carbery said after Monday’s practice. “That’s when it can really spiral because then you know you can talk all you want about what you’re doing in shots. Deliveries how you’re getting pucks to the net, your formation, all the different stuff right? It means absolutely nothing if you can’t enter the zone and set up a possession.”
The zone entry is what makes a clean power play, and a power play that simply can’t execute. The Caps run the same slingshot pass that they have been executing for quite some time now. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Carbery has been trying to switch up the five-man unit to ignite a spark. The most notable change being Connor McMichael switching with Evgeny Kuznetsov on the top unit. Kuznetsov missed Saturday’s win against the Columbus Blue Jackets due to an illness. He was back at practice on Monday, but McMichael still worked with the top unit.
Kuzy demoted to PP2 for no reason lol. McMichael should be on 2nd unit
— Babs (@itsbabalou) November 20, 2023
“We have personnel coming in and out. Kuzy’s been sick. Me and Tom [Wilson] have been flipping back and forth. So, we’re just searching right now for something that clicks for us and I think work ethic and simplicity is going to be the key factor to us getting out of this little rut that we’re in,” T.J. Oshie said. “Once we start getting more shot attempts, more shots on net, maybe some dirty goals, we’ll start to feel good about ourselves. I think maybe those high-end plays will come a little bit more.”
An underrated part of the power play is coming up with loose pucks. Not a lot of people realize that that area alone can make or break a power play. The Caps have not been strong in the corners and are having a difficult time winning those 50/50 puck battles. It is something that the Capitals’ bench boss has harped on throughout the campaign.
Meanwhile, it is worth noting a key piece to the power play has been missing for the last seven games. Nicklas Backstrom was the player working on the half-wall for the past decade. For so long the Swedish center made incredible passes with his slick hands and hockey IQ and has been a huge reason why the Caps’ power play was so dominant during its peak.
“That alone is a big challenge. He’s one of the best there is at almost giving everyone else a calming sense of our setup,” Oshie said.
But besides that, Backstrom was terrific at coming up with the puck and operating in tight situations along the wall. However, with Backstrom unlikely to play for the rest of the season, someone needs to be the player along the boards to come up with those loose pucks.
“There’s a lot of situations on the power play where a puck goes to the corner and it’s a penalty killer and a power play player and usually the power play player is gonna get first touch on it, but there’s a ton of pressure coming,” Carbery said. “A very undervalued skill of elite National Hockey League players… is your ability to get out of those situations and make a play. That part of it is work, part of it is will, part of it is determination… That’s what elite players do, and that’s why they make power plays effective.”
Furthermore, when a team capitalizes on the man-advantage, the biggest thing it does is it generates momentum. It can set the tone for the rest of the game.
“I think if we can get that extra goal support, obviously that would be important,” Dylan Strome said. “Our penalty kill has been unbelievable, so the power play is kind of the last last piece of the puzzle that really hasn’t gotten going since the start of the year. We’ve kind of fixed a lot of things since the beginning of the year and we just have to get the power play going.”
The Caps will look to get out of their power play funk when they take on the Buffalo Sabres for a pre-Thanksgiving showdown at Capital One Arena.
By Jacob Cheris