Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals' Power Play: Occupy the Slot

Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

The Washington Capitals' power play has been the topic of much concern and discussion among Caps fans dating back to at least the 1-for-33 debacle that was a (the?) primary culprit for 2010's first-round upset loss to Montreal. That unit had led the entire league in 2009-10, capitalizing on 25.2% of their chances, before stumbling in the post-season, and followed up that performance by converting at just a 17.5% clip last season, good for 15th in the league (tied with the Ottawa Senators). There are plenty of contributing factors in the decline of the Capitals power play (lack of movement, poor zone entries, lack of effort to win back loose pucks to name three). However, among all critiques of the Caps' power play, one always seems to come to the forefront: the utilization of Alex Ovechkin.

The engine of the Caps power play, indeed the engine for the team, has for years been Ovechkin. However, his power play potency has been steadily declining, from 22 goals in 2007-08, to 19 in 2008-09, to 13 in 2009-10, to just seven power play goals last season. And as any Caps fan can tell you (usually while shaking his or her head), Ovechkin has been a mainstay on the point during a Caps power play. But while it was once a (very) productive set up, teams have adjusted and it is no longer an optimal deployment.

There are five main concerns with Ovechkin manning the point. The first is that it requires him to chase down and retrieve pucks that are cleared by the penalty killing unit. This is among the most energy-consuming of all power play activities, and given his traditional shift length it doesn't make sense to have Ovechkin carrying the mail. The second is that leaving Ovechkin on the point (as a forward assuming a defensive positioning) leaves him, and the team, more susceptible to shorthanded rushes against. The third concern is that leaving Ovechkin on the point makes him easier for the opposition's penalty-killing unit to isolate. The fourth critique is related to the second and third critiques - leaving Ovechkin on the point limits his ability to be opportunistic and hunt down loose pucks in the offensive zone; his defensive responsibilities and isolation by the penalty killing unit make it much harder for him to find rebounds, strange bounces, and other fortuitous opportunities. Some people call it being in the right place at the right time, I call it being a shark in the offensive zone. Great scorers have that instinct, but Ovechkin's instinct is largely wasted at the point. The final critique is that it leaves the Capitals' best goal scorer shooting from the blue line, rather than taking higher-percentage shots closer to the net.

After the jump, we'll take a look at how Ovechkin has been scoring his power play goals, how penalty killing units have adjusted to his deployment on the point, and what a simple adjustment has done to change the entire look of the Caps power play in this young 2011-12 season.

First, let's take a look at all seven power-play goals Ovechkin scored during the regular season last year, the one power-play goal he scored in the playoffs, and his power-play goal this season. Note the location from which Ovechkin is shooting.

October 30, 2010, @ Calgary Flames (5 on 3)

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October 30, 2010, @ Calgary Flames

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February 4, 2011, @ Tampa Bay Lightning

(That's right, Ovechkin didn't score a power play goal in November, December, or January last season.)

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February 17, 2011, @ San Jose Sharks

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[A note regarding my concern over short handed exploitation, this goal was scored shortly after Joe Pavelski scored a short handed goal on this same power play.]

February 21, 2011, @ Pittsburgh Penguins

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[As with the previous picture, this goal came after Pittsburgh had two great scoring chances on the PK. No, the Penguins were unable to score a goal, but they had a two-on-one and then Jordan Staal had a clean breakaway before the Capitals finally scored this goal.]

March 9, 2011, home against Edmonton Oilers (His first, and only, power play goal in front of the home crowd last season. Yes, really.)

Ao_ppg6_2010_medium

April 5, 2011, @ Toronto Maple Leafs (5 on 3)

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May 3, 2011, @ Tampa Bay Lightning, Game 3 (5 on 3)

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October 20, 2011, @ Philadelphia Flyers

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What stands out about these screen captures is that only one of the goals came from an area that would traditionally be considered a point shot: the Penguins goal (arguably the Sharks goal as well, but that was a wrist shot and if you watch the replay video, Ovechkin is skating forward towards the high slot, not taking a traditional point shot). The rest of the shots come from the top of the circles or closer to the net (i.e. the generally accepted definition of the scoring chance area). By playing Ovechkin on the point, he spends most of his time outside the area that people consider to be the prime scoring area, and outside the area where he has, in fact, been scoring his power-play goals over the last season-plus. You may see these goals and conclude that his placement on the point isn't a concern; obviously he's still finding ways to get dangerous shots while playing on the point. The rebuttal is that he's only scored nine power play goals since opening night of the 2010-11 season. He's had a few more chances that haven't gone in, and you can't say that he's never produced from the point, but it doesn't seem optimal given what we know about the likelihood of goals being scored from the blueline, and what we see in the graphic evidence above.

Further, penalty killing units have figured this power play out. They are more than happy to contribute to the Caps' power-play woes by making sure Ovechkin doesn't get open shots from the tops of the circles. They aggressively play him on the penalty kill so that he has to stay out further by the blueline if he even wants a chance to get the puck. This isolates him from his teammates, and effectively turns the best scorer on the Caps into a passer at best, a decoy at worst. Let's see how teams do it.

Detroit Red Wings

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Here you see the Detroit Red Wings send both forwards high to keep Ovechkin pressed against the boards. Ovechkin doesn't really have any options. He could try to pass through the box to Alexander Semin, but realistically his only play is to Dennis Wideman at center-point. The Red Wings read the pass, tip it out of the zone, and then force the Caps to spend the rest of the man advantage just trying to get control, much less get a quality chance. The last (only) shot the Caps get on this particular power play is from the following location.

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As you can see, Ovechkin has to set up just inside the blueline just to get enough space to get a clean shot off. You can't see it in the frame, but the fifth Capital is standing in front of the net, right behind Nicklas Lidstrom, but from the distance from which Ovechkin is shooting, it's not going to be a dangerous shot... even if it manages to get through the penalty killers.

Philadelphia Flyers

As with Detroit, the Flyers are pressuring Ovechkin high in the zone to prevent him from getting near the top of the circles.

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The high forward is still skating towards Ovechkin when this screen cap it taken, and shortly will be right in Ovechkin's space. Unless Ovechkin tries to beat the penalty killer one-on-one, he is going to have to move the puck across the point to John Carlson, which is a win for the Flyers penalty killers.

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Here we see the weak-side Flyers penalty killer completely committed to denying Ovechkin the puck. He's still in the box formation, but he's out far enough that if Mike Green tries to pass to Ovechkin the pass will be intercepted or, at the very least, Ovechkin won't have any time or space to do anything with the puck when it gets there. This would be a risky pass to make, given how far out the penalty killer is. The Flyers have had one of the more dangerous penalty killing units in the league for several years now (though we'll see how that holds up without Mike Richards and Jeff Carter).

Flyersaggressivepkatpoint_medium

Here we see both Flyers penalty killing forwards out high in the zone, pressuring Ovechkin and Alex Semin. Semin makes an errant pass over to Ovechkin and the result is a two-on-one against. This ties back in to the concern about defensive vulnerability; small mistakes in passing can lead to high quality chances against when you play with the puck near the blue line.

New Jersey Devils

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As you can see here, the Devils aren't giving Ovechkin any room to operate near the top of the circles, they're keeping him up within a stick's length of the blue line.

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Even when Ovechkin doesn't have the puck, there's a Devils penalty killer close enough to him to cut off the passing angle, or force the puck even further out to the blue line.

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And despite the presence of a presumably more dangerous shooter right in the middle of the slot, the weak-side forward is shading with Ovechkin as Ovechkin tries to drift over to the top of the face off circle. They simply are not going to let him uncork a one-timer from anything resembling a prime scoring area. I'd love to know if Bruce Boudreau asked Jason Arnott about the Devils' penalty-killing strategy against the Caps and Ovechkin.

New York Rangers

I had to take a look at the Rangers because it seems as though no penalty killer has given Ovechkin as much trouble on the point as Ryan Callahan has.

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This isn't quite as aggressive as what we saw from Detroit, but you can clearly see that both forwards are set up well outside the tops of the face off circles. Neither Green nor Ovechkin has any opportunity to get to a scoring area. Again, notice that, just like the Devils, the Rangers are more content to leave an open player in the slot than to leave Ovechkin (or Green) any room to operate in scoring areas. To get the puck to the man in the slot Ovechkin would have to pass through the penalty killers, a risk the Rangers are willing to take.

Tampa Bay Lightning

And in case anyone is wondering whether Guy Boucher watches video, here are three screen caps taken from the playoffs. Consider it your pop quiz, how many similarities can you find with the screen caps above?

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This shot was blocked.

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The forward is pivoting and moving out closer to Ovechkin, this is not a stationary set up.

Now let's take a look at what happens to penalty killing units when the Capitals make one small adjustment by moving Ovechkin down lower in the power play set up. Such a set up has been used so far this season, and has been quite effective. The first time this set up really shined was against the Florida Panthers.

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In case it's unclear, that's Ovechkin being swarmed by three penalty killers. Both penalty kill forwards and the strong-side defenseman have committed to Ovechkin because he's in a scoring area. Take a look at how much space this opens up for the point men, Green and Wideman.

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And now look at how much space Marcus Johansson has down by the goal line. To be fair, Johansson isn't in what you'd normally consider scoring position (that is, if you'd never looked at where Johansson tends to score from), but that close to the net you generally would see more pressure on an offensive player. The strong-side defenseman is trying to get back down low but he isn't in full control and he's not in a position to put immediate pressure on Johansson. The result is a power play goal (though I'm sure Jacob Markstrom would like that one back).

The new-look power play continued it's strong play in the next game, against the Flyers. Above we saw how the Flyers normally put heavy pressure on the Capitals point men, but take a look at what happens when Ovechkin moves down to the slot.

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Incredibly, there are once again three penalty killers surrounding Ovechkin, and the Flyers are forced to leave the Capitals point men wide open. Even more incredibly, Ovechkin manages to slide higher in the zone, find the least bit of open real estate, and fire a one-timer past Ilya Bryzgalov (with some thanks to Troy Brouwer). This is what it's like to be a shark in the offensive zone. Ovechkin sensed a tiny opening, and made no mistake when his partner in crime, Nicklas Backstrom, got the puck to him with a deft pass. (For more evidence of offensive zone opportunism, and the benefits of having Ovechkin near the net, look back to the other goal he scored against the Flyers, and his tip in against the Penguins, for that matter.)

The power play wasn't done after the Flyers game, however. Up next was the Detroit Red Wings, possibly the most aggressive penalty killers of the group surveyed above. How would they respond to seeing Ovechkin down low? This one needs some video to fully appreciate.

Just as with the Flyers and Panthers, the Red Wings show immediate concern for Ovechkin.

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You notice that Niklas Kronwall picks up Ovechkin high in the slot and then stays with him as Ovechkin slides to the side of the net. Normally Kronwall would be the weak-side defenseman, but he's not concerned with any weak side Caps or any potential backdoor pass. His only concern is Ovechkin. But seeing as Detroit is only guarding Ovechkin with one player they seem a bit less concerned with Ovechkin than Florida or Philadelphia was. However, very shortly their concern will become evident.

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The puck is sent behind the Detroit net and Kronwall immediately turns to chase the puck and put pressure on Backstrom. This is normal, but Brad Stuart turns and immediately chases Ovechkin. Chasing players behind the net, especially on the penalty kill, is very unusual, and many coaches consider it a Cardinal sin. However, Stuart is so concerned with Ovechkin down by the net (even more concerned than the Panthers were when Johansson actually had the puck near the net) that he beelines to cover Ovechkin.

The result is that after chasing Ovechkin behind the net (and some great puck movement by the Caps), the Red Wings have two defensemen covering Ovechkin in the corner, the weak-side forward attempting to cover Brouwer as he crashes the net, and the strong side forward trying to take away Backstrom's passing lanes.

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The entire blue oval is open space, dangerous space, that can be exploited by talented players. Backstrom lays out a beautiful saucer pass for Green, and the rest is history. I'm sure Mike Babcock could identify more than a small handful of breakdowns on the part of the Red Wings, but this is one of the prettiest power plays Caps fans have seen in some time.

Based on the location of Ovechkin's most recent power play goals, the prevailing defensive strategy to guard him when he's on the point, and the success of the new-look power play, we can only hope that Alex Ovechkin continues to occupy the slot. It won't be a panacea in itself - the Caps will continue to need to work hard and create movement on the power play, continue to get clean zone entries, and be prepared to adjust against the inevitable penalty killing adjustment - but playing Ovechkin closer to the net should allow the team to maximize the talent on their power play unit, and hopefully maximize Ovechkin's individual production.

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