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Tampa’s Power Play: Thunderbolts or Isolated Showers?

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s top power play unit has been deadly in the Eastern Conference Finals. Does Washington need to make major adjustments, or is there a simple fix?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Washington Capitals 4-2 at Capital One Arena in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals Tuesday night to climb back into the series 2-1, a few things became as apparent as a bolt from the blue:

  1. I should not cover games if the Capitals want to win.
  2. Nicklas Backstrom is sorely missed.
  3. Washington cannot keep giving the Lightning power play chances.

With 5 power play goals in three games this series, that last point has become obvious. The Capitals’ penalty kill has lost its mojo, and recovering it — or at least, limiting its exposure to the cruel, unforgiving sun of duty — will be key to advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.

But does that require a major overhaul, or just a few tweaks?

Penalize Me, Baby

Let’s get this out of the way right now: the Washington Capitals, like a rowdy trapeze troupe, are taking too many flipping penalties.

Through three conference finals games, the Caps have taken 16 penalties. Sixteen! If the Capitals’ total number of penalties were a person, it would be learning to drive and hounding you for the car keys every Friday night. Against a Tampa squad which boasted the third-best regular season power play in the league this year (23.9%), if that isn’t playing with fire, it’s at least sticking your finger in the socket.

And while some of the whistles against Washington have been...questionable (T.J. Oshie’s phantom-high-sticking-via-puck-voodoo comes to mind), some have been of the type of epic foot-shooting that would make Yosemite Sam howl with glee. In Game 3, for example, with his team trailing by three goals in the third period, Evgeny Kuznetsov took a high-sticking the offensive zone....away from the play....while Alex Ovechkin had the puck.

Like a fed-up jungle guide, that just ain’t gonna hack it any more.

There Can Only Be One (Tampa Power Play Unit)

At even-strength, the Capitals have been fairly well asserting their will on the Lightning, leading the five-on-five shot attempts margin by a healthy, even zaftig 76-57. So Washington’s problem isn’t fives.

Tampa Bay has scored 8 goals so far in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Capitals. 5 of those goals have come on the power play.

Not only that, but many of those power play goals have looked all-too-familiar to Capitals faithful and fans of the hit NBC comedy Ovechkin’s Office™.

Check out these two power play markers from Game 3:


Notice anything?

Yes, they look like litigable violations of Alex Ovechkin’s intellectual property. But beyond that, they involve the same cast of characters. Namely, Tampa’s top power play unit.

And that’s not just your imagination. Tampa has scored five of their eight goals on the power play, but their second power play unit hasn’t recorded a single point so far. In fact, on those five goals, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have either scored or recorded the primary assist on every single one.

With four players on the PP1 unit (Stamkos, Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Brayden Point) accounting for all of Tampa Bay’s power play points, the mission for Washington becomes less one of total systematic penalty kill overhaul and upheaval, and instead a matter of creating better match-ups against that one unit.

So, how do you do that in time for Game 4?

Brooks Orpik and the Revolution

Brooks Orpik is a lot of things.

He’s a good American boy.

He’s an age-defying nutrition guru.

He’s a respected veteran leader.

He’s built like a brick sh*thouse.

But he is not fast, and he should not be on the Capitals’ top penalty killing unit against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

You want proof? I got receipts.

In these playoffs, Orpik is allowing the most shots against (technically Corsi against, but essentially the same thing) per 60 minutes on the penalty kill (119.62) of any Capitals player. The next-worst defenseman is Matt Niskanen, with a distant 110.84.

Orpik is also allowing the most goals against per 60 minutes on the penalty kill of any Capitals defenseman (11.18), behind only rookie Chandler Stephenson among all skaters.

On the penalty kill in Game 1 against the Lightning, Orpik allowed 7 shots against and 1 goal against, both worst on the Capitals.

On the penalty kill in Game 2 against the Lightning, Orpik allowed 10 shots against and 1 goal against, both worst on the Capitals.

On the penalty kill in Game 3 against the Lightning, Orpik allowed 8 shots against and 2 goals against, both worst on the Capitals.

He has been on the ice for 4 of Tampa’s 5 power play goals this series.

All this, despite the fact that Orpik benefits from the second-best on-ice save percentage (83.61%) of all Capitals penalty killers.

I want it known, and I’ve staked my meager, flea-ridden reputation on this, that Brooks Orpik has been fine on defense this postseason, and improved from the regular season. He’s been burned a few times, but he’s made plenty of good plays, and his hard-hitting seismic style is a deterrent for undersized speedsters thinking about slipping into the zone.

But the fact that Orpik’s 12:51 of penalty kill time-on-ice leads all Capitals players in this series is ridiculous.

It needs to change.

Moving Orpik off of the top PK unit is a quick, simple fix Barry Trotz should make, and one that can prove he’s a coach worthy of getting to a Stanley Cup Final.

Christian Djoos, Communion Wine

As evidenced in the goal clips above, and by Victor Hedman’s ability to casually glide from the point down into the high slot for juicier shots in Game 3, Washington needs to close down space and get to Tampa’s shooters faster. The Lightning are a superlatively talented team, and with time to pick their shots, they’ll hurt you.

That’s why Christian Djoos, in the biggest moment of his already-impressive rookie season, should take Brooks Orpik’s spot on the penalty kill.

Barry Trotz does not trust Djoos very much. Let’s get that out of the way. But for this specific assignment, Djoos is almost purpose-built. His speed, skating, and stamina are what the Capitals need to hurry, harry, hustle, and hassle the Lightning out of their comfortable snipers’ nests.

Some statistics to suggest that Djoos may be up to the task:

Among Capitals defensemen not already on the penalty kill unit this postseason, Djoos has allowed the fewest shots-against per 60, the fewest goals-against per 60, and has posted the lowest expected-goals-against per 60 at even strength, all while enjoying the lowest save percentage from Braden Holtby behind him.

Something needs to change on the Capitals penalty kill. Tampa Bay’s top power play unit is proving just too deadly. It’s time for Barry Trotz to make an adjustment.

Because when it comes to special teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s kill or be killed.