For just the second time in the Ovechkin era, the Capitals enter the postseason with a strong penalty kill — second in efficiency and top-five in shots against rate this season. They'll face a familiar-looking unit in Philadelphia's power play.
Although the Caps have the better power play in this matchup — considering its track record and how good it is in (more-or-less) every facet of the game, it's likely the best in the NHL — the Flyers are no slouches, either. Over the past three seasons, their power play ranks third (to Washington and St. Louis) with a 20.5% power play efficiency, and the unit enters the postseason on a good roll. Moreover, the Flyers get on the power play often; only Arizona had more power play chances this season, and only Detroit, Dallas, and Tampa Bay have more over the last three.
In the season series, the Flyers went 3-17 (17.6%), while the Caps went 3-10 (30%)
Although the Caps seem like the team that kicked off the League-wide 1-3-1 fad, Philadelphia wasn't far behind. The Flyers like to set up in a mirror image of the Caps' look, running their power play off the left wall. Claude Giroux is the playmaker in the vein of Nicklas Backstrom (and trails only Backstrom in five-on-four points per 60 over the last three years), while Brayden Schenn is in the slot, Wayne Simmonds around the net, Shayne Gostisbehere at the point, and Jakub Voracek in the "Ovechkin spot."
That said, the Flyers are much more flexible with where players line up and the plays they run. You can often see players playing positions for which they have the "wrong" handedness (especially when the usual five suspects are not out). The Flyers are happy to go for chances off the rush following a clean entry rather than go immediately into the power play formation. They target their players down low — usually Schenn (11 PPGs) and Simmonds (13 PPGs, from a player who has scored at about a 30-goal pace for five years and is regularly called one of the best net-front players in the league) — for deflections and rebound goals more than the Caps do for theirs (Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie).
The plot below shots the locations of goals (left) and shots on net (right) for the Washington power play over the last three years. The diamonds are the five "centers." (If you had to divide the points into five groups based on location, these are the centers of the five groups.) On the right, the top number is the percentage of the shots on goal contained in that group, and on the bottom is the shooting percentage on those shots. On the left, the number is the percentage of goals contained in that group.
Based on our knowledge of the Caps' 1-3-1 power play, we can instantly match the diamonds to different players. We can see Alex Ovechkin (along with his second-unit replacement) taking around a third of the Caps' shots on goal, from his "office" at the top of the circle, or a little closer to the net. Another third comes around the crease, from a combination of the goal-line player, the slot player, and Ovechkin left really wide open. About 70% of the Capitals' goals with the extra man in this period have come from these areas.
This isn't set in stone, of course. This season, for example, Nicklas Backstrom went through a long period of being reluctant to shoot, the Carlson/Niskanen-to-Ovechkin pass hasn't been as easily available as in years past, and we've seen the Caps add some new wrinkles. But it's clear that at the end of the day, once the Caps set up, Ovechkin — or the threat of Ovechkin — is what drives the unit's success.
Philadelphia gets nowhere near as much out of its left-shot one-timer player as Washington does (though, in fairness, few teams could even come close, and Voracek is still pretty useful there). Instead, the Flyers' 1-3-1 gets relatively more traction out of Simmonds (and, to a lesser extent, Schenn) in front of the net.
Simmonds' replacement on the Caps' power play is Marcus Johansson, but the two play different roles. Johansson hangs around the goal line, to the side of the net, to receive a pass from Backstrom and fire a quick pass to either Oshie or Ovechkin for a high-quality chance, and when a shot comes, you can often find him jumping in to screen the goalie at the last second.
Simmonds, though, hangs around the front of the net on a more consistent basis, only occasionally moving away to help the Flyers move the puck from side-to-side. His role isn't to facilitate puck movement — it's to create chances by screening the goalie, getting deflections and rebounds, and generally causing havoc in the crease. He also scores quite a bit himself — he's third in the league (to Ovechkin and Joe Pavelski) over the last three years in power play goals.
Simmonds actually doesn't get that many shots — his 12.6 shots on goal per 60 minutes at 5-on-4 is solid, but far from elite, let alone chart-topping like Ovechkin's 23.3 shots per 60 — but he converts on a fourth of them. If Simmonds is getting chances on the power play, it's bad news for Washington.
Although the Capitals are similarly effective in getting shots from the crease and low slot — a little under a third of their shots, and scoring on over a fifth — they get those goals in different ways. Instead of moving the puck to the goal line and back into the slot, or looking for a pass directly from the half-wall for a sneaky out-of-formation shot or deflection, the Flyers have a simpler plan — get the puck to the net and let Simmonds take advantage of his size and skills.
If the Caps had gotten Ovechkin an open look like this, he's probably shooting to score. Voracek here, though, puts a quick shot-pass on the tape of Schenn, and Simmonds cleans up the rebound. The Flyers are frequently on the lookout to make that extra pass to Schenn or Simmonds, and the Caps had best be wary.
The Flyers are less hesitant than the Caps to shoot from the wall, from the point, or from other spots on the ice — deviating from the usual, "clean" looks one sees on the Caps' power play to shoot for a deflection or rebound, crashing the net with two or three players — because that's where Philadelphia has its biggest advantage.
If the Flyers gain possession in the offensive zone, they'll instantly be looking toward the net, in case Simmonds or another player is open for pass or deflection. If that's not there, they'll set up and look that way fairly quickly. The Flyers' PP may not force the Caps' defensemen to move away from the vicinity of the net a whole lot, but they will force them to be attentive, remembering to take away the potential for an extra pass and tying up loose sticks. As such, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Brooks Orpik will need to be sharp when Philadelphia starts looking toward the net.