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Nicklas Backstrom, the Power Play and the Threat of a Shot

Why the playmaker needs to be the shooter every now and again

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Since the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and the implementation of Adam Oates's 1-3-1 power play, no team in the League has been as good with the extra man as the Washington Capitals, and it's not even remotely close - the Caps have clicked on 24.3 percent of their power-play opportunities, 3.4 percentage points higher than the second-ranked Penguins, and have lit the lamp 225 times, 12.5 percent more often than the runner-up Flyers.

This season, the Caps have scored on 22.7 percent of their man-advantages, good for second in the League after some recent stumbles, a rare stretch in recent years for which the team has been out of that top spot.

During this extended span of power-play dominance (Barack Obama's entire second term, for perspective), the maestro of the symphony has been Nicklas Backstrom, orchestrating from the half-boards opposite the one-timer of the gods. From that position, Backstrom has options: feed the puck down low for a stuff attempt or tic-tac-toe to the trigger man in the slot, feed the slot directly, pass it out top for a shot or a swing-pass over to you-know-who, occasionally find a seam to thread a pass all the way across ice, or shoot. And it's this last option that has been missing lately... and it may be contributing to the Caps' recent ineffectiveness with the extra man (the Caps are just two for their last 19 and 15-for-91 (16.5%) since the All-Star break).

We've got jokes! But there's more than a kernel of truth to this one. In fact, Backstrom hasn't registered a single power-play shot-on-goal in his last 11 games (29.1 minutes) and hasn't registered a single power-play shot attempt in his last five (14.3 minutes); in only one of his last eight games has Backstrom attempted a shot with the extra man and only has four such shots on goal in his last 27 games... which, perhaps coincidentally, is that "since the All-Star break" stretch. Graphically, it looks like this (the All-Star break was late-January; these are 10-game rolling numbers):

Backstrom PP1

Now, there are any number of reasons the PP has struggled - John Carlson's injury, Alex Ovechkin being banged up, general malaise... whatever. And correlation isn't causation. But check out the chart above when we overlay the Caps' power-play goals-per-60:

Backstrom PP2

Now, a note on that - the shot rate is per-game and the rate per-60, so it's not a perfect fit for this analysis, but it still tells a story, especially post-Christmas.

Again, Backstrom's reluctance to shoot isn't the reason the Caps' power play has been scuffling. But it's probably a reason - establishing a credible shot threat from that position is critical to making this power play work by opening up passing and shooting lanes rather than allowing opponents to focus on taking away shots elsewhere on the ice. And if you needed a reminder of how and why... watch this (and read this):