Through coaching changes, system changes, and personnel changes (two notable exceptions aside), the Capitals’ power play has been the best in the league, on the whole, since 2007. It has finished six seasons ranked in the top 10 league-wide, five in the top two, and four first overall (including the past three years).
With such an impressive track record, there would have been little reason to bet against the group again finishing first (or at least coming close). But the team has nonetheless been adding some new wrinkles to the power play toward the end of last season and the start of the current one. Those changes, so far, look like they’ve made the league’s best unit even better.
We’ve gone back and broken down every single power-play goal the Capitals have scored over the last 13 months to try to identify how it’s stayed the same—and how it’s been changing.
When Adam Oates came on board for the lockout-shortened 2013 season, he brought with him the 1-3-1 power play structure, which he’d used as an assistant coach with great success in Tampa Bay and New Jersey. What the Lightning, Devils, and Capitals had in common was a tremendous right-handed shooter (Steven Stamkos, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alex Ovechkin, respectively), and the 1-3-1 takes full advantage.
Caps over the past three years have had two main looks to get Ovechkin a one-timer. Both start with the half-wall passer (usually Nicklas Backstrom). The puck then goes either to the point, and then across to Ovechkin, or to the goal line, and then across the crease to a net-crashing Ovechkin.
In the first play, the player at the point can also elect to shoot. In the second, the player on the goal line can pass to the player in the slot for a quick shot, too. Finally, the player at the half-wall can also shoot himself. The majority of the Caps’ power play goals over the past year-plus have come on such a "set-up" play.
Most of the goals "mixed" category are broken plays that came out of the Caps’ usual setup, but also includes broken plays off the rush and off faceoffs.
Many teams have been trying to take away Ovechkin. That, in turn, opens up other passing lanes. The top power play unit has been guilty of trying to force-feed Ovechkin even with passing and/or shooting lanes taken away, but the group has diversified.
So far this season, Ovechkin has only taken a fourth of the Caps’ power-play shot attempts, scoring on none — down from 37% of the attempts and 18.7% shooting a season ago. The team has been more willing to take shots from elsewhere (since passing and shooting lanes are easier to find when you’re essentially playing 4-on-3) and it’s shown through the first few games.
Troy Brouwer was a productive player for the Capitals in the middle, scoring 27 power play goals over three years (ninth in the NHL). But Oshie is a skilled top-six forward with a better all-around game, and that's starting to come through.
Here he makes three key plays in the few seconds just before the goal. First, after the Caps gain the zone, Oshie is available as an outlet to help relieve pressure and get the puck to an open Marcus Johansson down low. It’s a play the Caps use every now and then when entering on the right side. Second, after Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan intercepts a pass from Johansson to a slot-crashing Oshie, Oshie immediately recovers to his right to poke-check the puck away.
Notice Carolina’s position: John-Michael Liles (26) is down low tightly marking Johansson, Victor Rask (49) is playing man coverage on Ovechkin, Nathan Gerbe (14) is blocking the pass back to the point, and Jordan (47) is just in a bad place. Jordan pursued Oshie (and the dislodged puck) to the half-wall, but can’t pressure Backstrom because Oshie is in the way.
Jordan gives up his pursuit of Backstrom but it’s too late. Oshie has already made a good read and maneuvered himself into the wide-open slot, even though it’s taken him away from the net and his usual position on the power play. Backstrom dishes him the puck before Liles can close the gap and the Caps have a 1-0 lead.
In fact, with Oshie or Justin Williams in the middle — or even Brouwer, for that matter — this shot is an Ovechkin-esque scoring threat. Ovechkin has converted on a little under 20% of his power-play shots on goal over the past three-plus seasons. Brouwer, playing mainly in the middle, converted on just over 20%. So did Joel Ward, the other frequent slot player in Washington’s 1-3-1.
There’s certainly a selection bias in the data; if the team’s passers didn’t sense Ward or Brouwer would get a prime look, they’d more likely wait for a better opportunity. But the asymmetry suggests the team could increase overall output by going to the slot a little more. And with the upgrade in skill level and playmaking ability, the slot pass becomes an even better option — a single pass from one of the team’s two best playmakers to a player who has the skill to get a quality shot off or continue the play with a pass to another dangerous scoring area.
The threat of a skilled slot-area presence can even open up an opponent’s penalty kill for Ovechkin. There are only so many plays a penalty kill can guard against simultaneously. If a team pays too much attention to the pass from the half-wall to the slot and both two-pass plays to Ovechkin, they could leave the seam pass — maybe the most dangerous one of the entire setup — wide open. Teams were already doing it late last season, and the team’s recent trip to Alberta drove home just how often that lane may open up.
Here, the Caps are set up the way they want to be. (Matt Niskanen is out of frame at the point.) Calgary is trying to take away possible one-timer from Niskanen and Williams, while old friend Dennis Wideman (left) is tasked with guarding an Ovechkin shot or pass from the goal line.
Kuznetsov passes to Niskanen, who passes right back, and suddenly, the Flames are completely lost. Sean Monahan is out of the play. Kuznetsov steps in and Williams does as well. Kris Russell, now tasked with guarding against a pass to Andre Burakovsky, a pass to Williams (who has body position on Joe Colborne), or a shot by Kuznetsov, slides. Colborne follows Williams. Wideman, meanwhile, has gone back to the net, misreading the play. In their effort to take away three passing lanes and one shooting threat, the Flames left open the passing lane to the most dangerous 5-on-4 shooting threat in the league.
While Edmonton’s penalty kill formation didn’t look as unorthodox as Calgary’s, it still yielded the direct cross-ice pass to Ovechkin because the penalty killers were too preoccupied with the other passing lanes.
The Caps this season have also looked more willing to attack off the rush, both at even strength and on the power play. Backstrom and Johansson seem to prefer pulling up and setting up the power play immediately after entering the zone, but Kuznetsov has shown several times already that he’s willing to continue to the attack for an immediate scoring chance. It’s yet another possibility opposing penalty killers have to be wary of.
Even with all these threats, the Caps’ PP will likely get a little less efficient as the season wears along — no team has maintained a 30% power play over a full season, so it’s unlikely the Bruins, Caps, or Stars pull it off (and the Caps, after Wednesday’s 0-for-3 performance against Pittsburgh, have already fallen back to 28%).
But we can expect the Caps to maintain a high shooting percentage (since 2012-13, they’re tied with Tampa Bay in first at 16.2% — a mark they’re currently slightly under), and these alternative, effective options they’ve added could finally get that vaunted power play to deliver all season long — including when it matters most.