On Tuesday night the Washington Capitals skated away with what appeared to be a fairly easy and convincing win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. A closer look, however, reveals a first period in which the Capitals were heavily out-shot (12-to-five) but were able to survive, somehow leaving the period with the lead. In the second period the Caps turned it around, taking control of the game when they scored on both halves of a Justin Falk double-minor for high sticking. The Capitals' power play has long been a strength of the team, but a new wrinkle has made the unit even more difficult to defend. Let's take a look.
The first goal was an Alex Ovechkin one-timer for the left circle. Sounds familiar, sounds routine, but the mechanics were a bit new:
The first thing that immediately sticks out is that Alex Ovechkin, usually the target of the seam pass through the penalty killing unit, turned the tables and executed a seam pass over to Evgeny Kuznetsov on the right side. That pass, with the Blue Jackets no doubt expecting a shot, sent the penalty killers into a bit of a fire drill.
The next thing you'll notice is that rather than the normal set up with a lefty down along the goal line on the right side, the Capitals had two players crashing the net, in this case Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. The Caps have been using this new wrinkle quite a bit lately, and this time the play paid off. Look at how two Blue Jackets defenders go to the front of the net to cover the two Washington Capitals crashing down.
Seth Jones came down to cover Backstrom on the crease and was unable to get back out to put pressure on Ovechkin on the return half of the give-and-go with Kuznetsov. The result was a fairly easy and routine looking power play goal for the Capitals.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, they still had another full two minutes to kill. The Capitals used the same wrinkle in the ensuing half of the power play and the Blue Jackets appeared to have learned their lesson. Fortunately for the Capitals, the result was the same:
Backstrom once again slides to the top of the crease rather than hanging out along the goal line while Kuznetsov set up the play on the half-wall. Seth Jones, once again with responsibility for the left side of the Capitals' power play, recognizes Backstrom down by the goal and moves to provide coverage, but visions of Ovechkin's goal are fresh in his mind so he cheats away from Backstrom to take away the seam pass.
Look at where Jones is when he first covers Backstrom. In this moment he's stopping to reverse course from Backstrom, but he's still close enough to provide coverage if the puck comes to Backstrom:
He starts moving back into the seam pass lane and less than a second later Backstrom is wide open. Kuznetsov recognizes the opening immediately and sets up Backstrom for a layup:
Jones has effectively shut down the pass to Ovechkin (who wasn't even cutting to the net at the time), but left a more dangerous area open.
The Capitals' power play has an embarrassment of riches, made even greater with the addition of Kuznetsov to the top power play unit. We've talked a lot here about how there should always be a high quality open look for this unit, even if the preferred look is Ovechkin's one-timer. Using a lefty along the goal line provides a lot of passing and puck-control options, but this new approach of sending the second lefty forward to the front of the net has given penalty killers something else to think about and react to, somehow making the deadliest power play unit in the league even deadlier.
No doubt the penalty killing units across the league will adjust and respond to this wrinkle, but this shows that Barry Trotz's coaching staff isn't content to sit on the power play unit they inherited. If there were any remaining questions about whether the Capitals' power play could adjust and remain potent, this season has provided a resounding answer. Special teams are always a back-and-forth game of cat and mouse, but in this analogy the Capitals are the cat, and they've got more claws than any mouse could defend.