Once again, the Capitals and Rangers will be facing off in the playoffs. Unlike the previous iterations, however, both teams have new coaches and new systems since the 2013 meeting. While the Caps' power play wasn't much of a factor in the Islanders' series, it's still the unit that causes opposing fans and coaches the most angst, and it's unlikely that the Caps will play a second consecutive playoff series with a record-setting low for power play opportunities. In preparation for this series, we've watched all of the Capitals' power play time from the regular season series with the Rangers, and come to a few conclusions.
For every penalty kill, the most important aspect is how to defend Alex Ovechkin. The Islanders, in the last series, used Johnny Boychuk to cheat out to Ovechkin and take away the shot when it even looked like Ovechkin might get a look. The Rangers take a different approach. The Rangers ask their right-side penalty killer to take away Ovechkin when the passing lane opens up, but they don't shadow Ovechkin. That means that the right-side penalty killer has a dual responsibility; they're asked to cover the Capitals' shooter in the slot (the diamond position), and to cover Ovechkin. Let's take a look:
You can see Derek Stepan shifting between covering Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer throughout the shift. What that means, from the Caps' perspective, is that at no point can the Rangers' right-side forward cover both Ovechkin and Brouwer, the two primary shooting threats. That means the Caps should almost always have one of their two primary threats available.
Rather than trying to take away the shooters, the Rangers try to take away the passers. The left-side forward plays just above Nicklas Backstrom (meaning just closer to the blue line and to the inside of the ice), and the left-side defenseman plays the pass between Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. The right-side defender, usually Dan Girardi, covers the top of the crease and almost never leaves (contra Boychuk for the Islanders). The instant the power play bobbles the puck, the Rangers are on top of them looking to get a clear or take the puck down ice on an odd-man rush.
Two things resulted from this penalty killing approach. The first is that Alex Ovechkin had a power play goal in all four meetings between these teams in the regular season. Taking away the passing lane rather than taking away Ovechkin allows the penalty killers to be more aggressive on the puck, but it also means there is very little margin for error.
In the first meeting between the teams, Ovechkin did this:
Notice how Johansson gains the zone with speed, pulling both Rangers forwards to his side of the ice. His quick pass up the boards to John Carlson catches the penalty killers out of formation (Rick Nash also broke a stick, but he was never going to get over to Ovechkin in time), leaving Ovechkin so much time and space that Girardi has to leave his post on the crease (Marc Staal rotates to cover the front, so that space won't likely be as open as it was against the Islanders) and giving Ovechkin all the time he needed to find a shooting lane.
In the second meeting, Ovi struck again with another open look:
The Caps got the puck into the zone but bobble the puck below the goal line. The aggressive Rangers penalty kill attacked he loose puck, including Dan Girardi. With the crease left unguarded, Jesper Fast slid to the low slot area. He couldn't recover in time to take away Ovi's shot once the Caps recover the puck. Again, the Capitals had to capitalize quickly once the Rangers penalty kill lost its defensive formation.
In the third meeting, once again it was Ovi from distance:
You see Carl Hagelin covering Joel Ward in the slot, and Ovi read the play and slid out high to give Backstrom a passing lane. A little traffic in front from Ward was all the distraction Ovechkin needed to beat Cam Talbot.
Finally, in the last meeting between these two teams, Ovechkin scored on a quintessential strike:
In this highlight, you can really see how the left-side penalty killers bracket Backstrom and try to take away his options. The penalty kill was a little spaced out and gave Backstrom and Carlson too much space to work, and when you organize a penalty kill to take away passing lanes and fail to take away passing lanes, it will get ugly. Notice that the scramble early in the sequence forces Girardi and Ryan McDonagh to swap positions, so maybe Girardi wasn't prepared to defend Backstrom so far from the net.
After these highlights, Caps fans must be wondering how the Rangers penalty kill could ever stop the Caps and may be expecting the power play to be a great equalizer in the upcoming series. However, it won't be that easy. three points stuck out in watching this battle play out over the year. Right away, the Rangers dominated the Caps in the faceoff circle while shorthanded. Nearly every power play started with a Rangers faceoff win and immediate clear. The Rangers then made it hard for the Caps to gain entry cleanly, so there were several power plays where the Caps never really got a good scoring chance.
The second thing that stands out is that the Rangers had nearly as many grade A chances as the Caps had. Several two-on-one breaks went back the other way, and the Caps were lucky not to concede a shorthanded goal in the season series. Braden Holtby is going to have to be every bit as good as Henrik Lundqvist when the Caps are on the man advantage, and that's not a comfortable thought. The Rangers give up some space in the defensive zone, but they are so aggressive that when they are able to catch the power play unit making a mistake, they take advantage of it.
Finally, it's amazing how much the Rangers stick to their guns. The Islanders allowed two power play goals to Ovechkin the first time they faced the Caps, and then made minor adjustments to the penalty kill in each subsequent regular season matchup before ultimately debuting a vastly different penalty kill in the playoffs from the one the Caps saw the day before Thanksgiving. The Rangers have been the most consistent team in the league and had success all year, so they may not feel the need to adjust what they do. They wouldn't be totally unjustified in that. The Rangers had the 6th best penalty killing percentage in the league this year, and were tied for the third most shorthanded goals. They had a lot of success doing what they do.
Still, it's hard to imagine the Rangers are completely comfortable with how many open looks Ovechkin got during the regular season (and that says nothing of all the open looks Troy Brouwer botched), so expect them to have at least a couple wrinkles in the penalty kill when the puck finally drops and the refs finally make a call. The adjustments may not be nearly as drastic as what the Islanders went through, but don't expect to see Ovi drop a power play goal every game, either.
Our pals at Blueshirt Banter advocate taking Ovechkin away, and it's hard to argue with the logic. No matter what other opportunities open up, it seems preferable to letting Ovechkin have time and space. It's not a new idea, a few teams have tried that approach at various times (Carolina, Colorado, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and New Jersey come to mind). The Caps are prepared for it and have made teams pay. The depth of the power play is the greatest asset, and they'll need it to show if the Rangers take Ovechkin away. When a team has an option to replace John Carlson's shot with Mike Green's creativity without missing a beat (and just think about what Green could do with the entire top third of the offensive zone), you know they've got some serious talent.
More importantly, though, is that if the Rangers try to take Ovechkin away by committing a penalty killer to him, it would force the Rangers to redesign a huge part of their penalty kill. The strong side pressure would be much more difficult and more risky. It's hard to see the numbers work so that the Rangers can pressure two men on the strong side and still cover the diamond, and front of the net, and forget about the point shot. The adjustments the Islanders made were a steady evolution in a similar direction that they had clearly been working on over the season. If the Rangers decide to reinvent their penalty kill with little time to practice, that may be a greater advantage than anything else Ovechkin could do.