During the Washington Capitals' 1-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils back in mid-November, the Caps power play went 0-for-4 and Alex Ovechkin was limited to just two shots on the game. The Devils made a concerted effort to take Ovechkin's shot away, and the power play was unable to adjust. In the 11 games since, there's been only one game in which Ovechkin has a power play goal, because apparently the Islanders didn't get the memo. Without Ovechkin lighting the lamp, the power play has been a bit up-and-down, but has scored big goals in each of the last two games. And while Ovechkin didn't score either of those goals, the new approach will lead to more shots, and goals, from Ovechkin in the future.
On Saturday night, nursing a one-goal lead, the Caps went to the power play against the Devils. With Ovechkin on the ice with the second power play unit, Evgeny Kuznetsov was able to beat Cory Schneider giving the Caps a huge insurance goal:
Watch how Kuznetsov takes the puck from the corner and walks it up the boards and then curls down to the faceoff circle. We've seen Nicklas Backstrom make that move hundreds of times, but he's almost always looking to pass, and the opponents know this. They focus on taking away his passing lanes and forcing him to take a shot, his least-favored option.
Even here, the high Devils forward on the penalty kill is committed to taking away the pass to the point man. Both weak side Devils stay committed to taking away the dangerous shots - Ovechkin and Joel Ward. The low penalty killer on the strong side is still trying to defend the pass to Brooks Laich and the area directly around the crease.
That means Kuznetsov has all the space he needs to get into a dangerous shooting area, all he has to do is take it. Kuznetsov took the space and then took the shot, and the Caps wouldn't look back.
Last night we saw an even more drastic example. With the game somehow tied, the Caps got a late first period power play and Matt Niskanen was able to restore the lead:
Right off the draw Ovechkin starts to circle out wide to set up an angle for his one-timer. The Lightning penalty killer stays with Ovechkin, and Ovechkin never stops circling, ultimately ending up right next to the goal. Rather than forcing the puck to Ovechkin, the Caps take advantage of the open ice. After working the puck on the right wing, Niskanen curls out to the left wing faceoff circle and Backstrom puts a perfect pass in his wheelhouse. Niskanen managed to miss Ben Bishop, and the Caps reclaimed the lead.
Three of the four Lightning were essentially playing a standard zone defense. One guy was playing man to man. That left the Caps with plenty of open space, and by the time Niskanen got the puck all four defenders were below the hash marks and Niskanen was standing where Ovechkin would normally be set up. Obviously every team wants to prevent Ovechkin from taking that shot because he's so deadly from there, but if teams continue to give the Caps open cross-ice one-timers from the top of the circle then there are plenty of guys on the roster that can make them pay.
When the Caps' power play struggles it's frequently because they start trying to force pucks to Ovechkin. When teams are committed to taking away Ovechkin, other guys have to step up and make them pay. The last two games the Caps started to take what the penalty kill was giving them. Last night it was an open one-timer from the circle. Saturday night it was an open shot from the faceoff circle. Both of those shots are high quality shots that teams would be happy taking in most circumstances. The only way to make teams respect the rest of the shooters on the power play is for the rest of the power play to take those shots. When opponents start to adjust to cover those shooters they'll have to leave Ovechkin with some more space, which will ultimately lead to more Ovechkin goals. Obviously Alex Ovechkin is the tip of the spear for the Capitals offense, but there's a lot of other talent on that unit and for the power play to be as successful as it can be, they'll need to use all of the players they have at their disposal.