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Shot Down: Indicators of a Struggling Power Play

A look at some metrics behind the smoke and mirrors

NHL: Washington Capitals at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of the period in Washington Capitals history that will be known to fans and hockey historians alike as “The Alex Ovechkin Era,” the club’s power play has been the most feared extra-man unit in the game, converting at better than 20 percent efficiency ten times since 2008-09 (clearing 25 percent in four of those full seasons) and clicking at a League-best 22.6 percent over that span.

Eight games into the 2019-20 campaign, the Caps have scored on 21.9 percent of their power plays (7-for-32), which is actually up a tick from last year’s 20.8 percent (a franchise low since season Dale Hunter coached the squad for 60 games).

And while that 21.9 percent certainly isn’t bad (it would’ve ranked eighth overall last season), there’s cause for concern that the unit that has still yet to score a five-on-four goal at home and was relatively disappointing last season still has a lot of work to do. Specifically, the rate at which the Caps power play is generating shots is a major red flag in the early going (with the obvious caveats about sample size and such). Just take a look at these five-on-four numbers, via Natural Stat Trick:

Shot generation is way down across-the-board. Shot attempts are down 25 percent from the three years that preceded this one. Scoring chances are down 40 percent. High-danger chances are down 50 percent.

To be sure, shot rates are a symptom and not the disease... so what’s the disease? Our pal Pat Holden took a look at the Caps’ man-up play in the neutral zone last week, and that’s a likely culprit. The Caps’ early inability to handle more aggressive in-zone penalty kills is also a probable factor. Taken together, it makes sense - if a team struggles to gain entry into the zone and to set up its power play once there, its shot rates are almost certainly going to suffer, and that’s precisely what we’ve seen so far, as only the woeful Ottawa Senators are generating five-on-four shot attempts at a lower rate than the Caps.

That the Caps have been able to convert on a half-dozen five-on-four chances may be obscuring a poor start to the season for the power-play a bit, and perhaps the team is going to settle in and rates will climb back to where we’d expect them to be sooner rather than later (recall that Evgeny Kuznetsov has missed three of the team’s eight games). But it bears keeping an eye on, because it quite obviously is integral not only to the team’s success, but also to its captain’s pursuit of the all-time goal record. After all, a wise man once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” and right now the Caps’ power play isn’t taking enough shots.