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What's Going on with the Capitals' Power Play?

A look at how the team's biggest strength has become... something else

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As you may have noticed, the vaunted Washington Capitals power play is in a bit of a slump, one highlighted by an 0-for-4 outing on Long Island Monday night during which the team yielded its first shorthanded goal-against of the season. It hasn't been too often over the past couple of seasons that the Caps' power play has cost them a game, but here we are.

This isn't a horrible or terribly prolonged slump, mind you - the Caps are 3-for-30 with the extra man over the last eight games, 6-for-43 in December.

It happens. The question is... why?

Since opening night, there have basically been four constants on the Caps' top power-play unit, and that unit has gotten upwards of 60% of the five-on-four ice time. Those four constants have been forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson. The one thing that has changed has been the defenseman up top. John Carlson started the season there, then Mike Green took over until he got hurt and Matt Niskanen got a shot. Once Green returned to the lineup, it didn't take long for him to re-assume that role, and he's held it ever since.

How has each done? Glad you asked:

PP1

Above you can see the percentage of power-play ice time each has gotten, game-by-game (this chart includes all power plays, not just five-on-four), with a table at the bottom showing how the team did in games with each blueliner as the top dog (the three columns on the right excludes games in which none of the three played more than 50% of the team's power-play minutes).

Niskanen for PP1, right?

Not so fast. Obviously these are small samples, and with a bounce here or a save there, that table could look a bit different. So let's look at shot generation over these four fairly distinct segments.

October 9 - 26 (8 games, 7-for-27 (25.9%), Carlson as PP1 defenseman)

Oct 9 - 26

What we're really looking at here is the X-axis - the Caps' shot attempt rate. Shot rate is by no means determinative of how good or bad a power play is, but it can certainly provide some clues. Here we see the first unit at upwards of 120 on-ice shot-attempts per sixty minutes of five-on-four ice time, which is a great clip. In fact, it would be tops in the League right now (of course, other teams play more than just their top units, so it's not apples-to-apples, but you get the gist). Carlson (as a proxy for the unit) had a Fenwick-For (unblocked shot attempts) rate of 96.5, also a stout number. The team scored a lot, and that was good.

But "good" wasn't good enough.

October 29 - November 20 (11 games, 7-for-31 (22.6%), Green as PP1 defenseman):

Oct 29 - Nov 20

Yes, the team's conversion rate dropped slightly during this stretch, but would you look at that shot generation? That's a lot of rubber. Green's Corsi-For per 60 (again, as a proxy for the unit, since these are on-ice and not individual numbers) was 146.2. His Fenwick-For per 60 was 110.8. Both of those numbers would be tops in the League over the course of this season. But then Green got injured and gave way to Niskanen.

November 22 - December 11 (9 games, 8-for-21 (38.1%), Niskanen as PP1 defenseman):

Nov 22 - Dec 11

The first thing you're struck by here (besides the white-hot conversion rate) is how few power-play opportunities the Caps had during this stretch - just 21 in nine games. Actually, it's worse than that, since the last of those nine was a six-chance game in Columbus. So 15 opportunities in the other eight games. Not cool (and a trend in these segments, which saw the team go from 3.4 opportunities per game to 2.8 to 2.3 here). What was cool is that the Caps scored at least once in seven of these nine games, and the shot generation was good, but not nearly at the level of the previous Green segment.

But Green would get healthy and still is, so the shot generation has gone back up, right? Well...

December 13 - 29 (8 games, 3-for-30 (10%), Green as PP1 defenseman):

Dec 13 - 29

At least the power-play opportunities have returned, eh? Comparing the two Green segments is stark. In fact, let's put it all together in one neat chart:

PPD2

You can look at this as a steady decline in shot-generation over the last three segments (though there were actually a higher percentage of shots getting through and on net during that Niskanen segment than any other), or you can look at how big a drop-off there's been between the two Green segments. But these are symptoms and not the disease - these numbers describe what's going on, but not why it's going on (and Green, Carlson and Niskanen aren't likely the answers either).

Obviously that's a tough question to answer. Perhaps after the last game of the Niskanen segment - in which the Caps fired 18 power-play shots on Sergei Bobrovsky but beat him just once - Barry Trotz made some adjustments to his power-play (there have certainly been some tweaks more recently, most notably flipping Johansson's and Backstrom's positions). And the team's zone-entries have looked (emphasis on "looked") sloppier and less successful lately (by the way, dump-ins may not be quite the "avoid-at-all-costs" endeavor with the man advantage that they are at evens).

But one area that probably is contributing to the downturn is the Caps' recent lack of success in the face-off circle while on the power play. To wit, here's how they've fared in each of the four segments:

Face-Off Wins Face-Off Total Face-Off Percentage
Carlson 23 42 54.8%
Green1 41 61 67.2%
Niskanen 25 41 61.0%
Green2 24 59 40.7%

In the Caps' best shot-generation segment, they dominated - and I mean dominated - the dot. They also killed it in their second-best segment and were good in the third (it's worth noting here that League-average power-play face-off percentage is just a bit below that 54.8% mark). And in this last segment, in which they've struggled to put shots towards, on and in net? They've also been getting slaughtered on draws (partially owing to playing six of eight games on the road, perhaps).

Win a power-play draw (usually in the offensive zone), and setting up a highly-skilled power play to do its thing is relatively simple; lose that draw and the task is far more difficult, in large part because it involves having to gain the zone (again) and gain or maintain possession of the puck once there (to say nothing of the time off the clock). Makes sense. And the data seems to bear this general notion out as well (less so on Corsi than on Fenwick and SOGs, though, in general; and check out Muneeb's comment to that post for some nitty-gritty).

There are any number of reasons a power play might struggle, from LOFT issues to bad systems and strategies to bad play to bad luck, and the Caps' current woes are probably an unequal mix of the latter three. But they've been great before and likely will again, especially if they can start forcing and winning more face-offs when up a man and get back to what they were doing in November.

[Big h/t to war-on-ice for much of the data in this post.]