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Caps Questions: Troubled by Five-on-Three Futility?

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Looking at a continuing trend for the Caps - the inability to score with a two-man advantage.

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, down a goal on the road with less than four minutes left, the Caps were gifted a late five-on-three power-play when Joakim Nordstrom shot a puck off the rink from his defensive zone while already killing a penalty and took the accompanying Delay of Game minor.

The Caps failed to score on the ensuing opportunity (and the five-on-four that followed it) and lost. Despite scoring three times with the extra man earlier, coming up short there hurt. As Nick Backstrom said, "It’s good we scored a couple goals on the power play but we had that chance 5-on-3 and we should have scored."

The Captain went a little further and pointed a finger: "Fehrsie missed empty net." See for yourself...

Regardless of blame and the specifics of that five-on-three, the Caps are now 0-for-6 in their last half-dozen 5-on-3's dating back to last season, and that’s in more than seven minutes of ice time up two men, with none of those six chances having been less than 30 seconds long (four have been more than a minute, including last night's 1:26).

So here’s the question - as frustrating as it is to watch, just how big a problem is the Caps’ inability to score at five-on-three?

Rob: Not being able to score on a five-on-three is a problem. In the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s not as much of a problem as being bad at even strength, because five-on-three time is a small percentage of game time over the course of a season. That small percentage of game time is high-leverage, though, and we’ve all seen how much those power plays/penalty kills can swing momentum, even if it isn’t late in a close game as was the situation last night.

It baffles me that the team that lit it up during five-on-four situations can’t convert on five-on-threes, and if they are going to continue to rely on being deadly on the power play they’ll need to make those five-on-three situations count. A team that dominates at even strength might be granted some slack for not converting five-on-three power plays, but the Caps aren’t one of those teams, so Adam Oates is going to need to find the cure to the five-on-three woes at some point this season.

Becca: As Rob noted, it’s baffling that this team can be so dominant on a regular power play and then seemingly fall apart (or at least become less dominant) when they have a two-man advantage as opposed to one. They have this enormously skilled group of offensive powerhouses and more space - common sense would dictate that they would make teams pay for taking that extra penalty, and yet it seems like the only way to stop the Caps’ power play is to do exactly that. The momentum swing - in either direction - can be a big deal, and we saw that in last night’s game. And there are times when, down by one and up by two men, you really need that goal to be scored; and again, last night’s game is a perfect example.

That said, considering how infrequently teams even go up by two men compared to other areas that could use as much improvement (if not more), it’s one of those things that seems like such a huge deal within the game or over the course of the season even though it may not be.

Consider that over the last three seasons, the Caps have gotten 30 opportunities at 5-on-3, in about 14% of their games overall during that span. That’s actually tied for the fourth-lowest percentage in the League, with only Boston, Nashville and Colorado getting fewer two-man advantages. In those 30 opportunities, the Caps have scored eight times - close to 27%, which is just about middle of the pack League-wide… and yet the League average is just under 11 goals in about 37 opportunities in the last three seasons combined. Would two or three extra goals (over three seasons, no less) really have made much of a difference either way? I can’t imagine that they would.

It is frustrating to watch, for sure. And when the team is down by one late and is handed what seems like a golden opportunity, absolutely you want them to score - just as you would with any other opportunity that presents itself in that situation. But between the rarity of this kind of situation and the fact that the team at least looked better trying last night (I know, I know, lying eyes and all of that) than they did all of last season, it’s hard to get too upset about it… especially when they’re cashing in on the much more frequently occurring 5-on-4 power play, which they seem to be doing.

Kevin: It’s baffling, frustrating, and almost inexplicable when you look at the success this team has had on five-on-four, but it’s not a problem. Those twelve seconds per game (which is obviously a spread-even accommodation and not an appropriate representation of the how the 5-on-3 time shakes out during games) are rarely going to decide something that the other 3,588 seconds do not.

Like Rob said, the first step to making up for failing on one extreme is by balancing it with stellar play on the other— in this case even strength. This is a new year with new personnel in key spots on the squad, and they showed up last night and went toe-to-toe, by every possession measurable, with one of the top-3 possession teams from a year ago. If you’d offered me that trade a year ago - a futile 5-on-3 for a strong team at evens - I’d have taken it from you faster than you could say Grabovski.

That said, problems on the two-man advantage are probably easier to identify and shore up given that its comprised primarily of set plays, and more geometrical than any other situation in the game (save for perhaps penalty killing in the same situation). Issues at 5-on-3 still fall under the umbrella of power play, where the Caps are doing just fine.

JP: I don’t think there’s a 5-on-3 problem as much as there’s been some bad luck. Look at last night’s failure - the Caps had four shots on goal (including Eric Fehr’s), two more shots blocked (taken by Ovechkin) and another that missed the net (also Ovechkin). They also won three of the five draws during the two-man advantage. It’s not as if they just sat there playing pattycake around the perimeter. They had chances, they just didn’t convert.

That said, it’s something to keep an eye on. There were seven teams last season that scored at a lower rate 5-on-3 than 5-on-4, and the Caps were one of those teams. Whereas the Caps scored 2.4 fewer goals/60 5-on-3 than 5-on-4, the Hawks, for example scored 77.7 more goals/60 5-on-3 than 5-on-4. It’s a frustrating trend, but not one I’m too worried about… yet.

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