In late December, the Caps’ power play hit rock bottom, posting back-to-back 0-for-6 efforts at the end of a 1-for-27 stretch that landed them 31st in the League since an opening night three-PPG outburst (a span of 31 games).
Since then, they’ve been better - 22nd overall - but things really took off a month later:
The Capitals have a power play goal in 13 of their last 18 games. During that span, which started on Jan. 28, the Capitals' 31.1 power play percentage (18 goals on 58 opportunities) ranks second in the NHL.— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) March 18, 2022
For you visual learners, on the season, their rolling ten-game 5-on-4 goal rate looks like this:
Conveniently, that “rock bottom” point is almost exactly the midway point of the season so far - 32 games before, 30 games since (somewhat curiously, the team’s record was much better in the first set - 19-6-7 - than in the second - 15-12-3 - but that’s another discussion).
So what the hell is right with the Caps’ power play? Let’s take a look at the factors we identified back on December 30 and see what’s changed.
Not Enough Alex Ovechkin
The problems was never “not enough Ovi,” but maybe where he was shooting from. To wit, his shot rate and involvement in the offense are down, but his scoring-chance rate - and goals - are up:
But aside from the regression uptick in shooting percentage, those numbers aren’t wildly different (the high-danger chance rate is a bit concerning); Ovechkin is shooting less, but the general picture is very much the same:
So it doesn’t look as if Ovechkin is doing anything different.
Too Much John Carlson
Carlson’s shot rates (i.e. him taking too many) weren’t the problem... are they a solution?
Carlson has gone in the opposite direction of Ovechkin - more shots and a downward regression in shooting percentage. Neither of those is likely a major factor in the turnaround in the Caps’ power play fortunes, though you could convince yourself that a credible shot threat at the top of the zone pulls defenders out a little bit.
Not Enough Nick Backstrom
Congrats, we solved the mystery!
Here’s that 10-game rolling goal rate chart with a couple of small additions:
The Caps’ expected goal rates with and without Backstrom (as we noted in December) has been and continues to be stark:
This isn’t rocket science - the Caps’ power play has depended on Nick Backstrom to make it run for nearly 15 years, and while he’s slowed down a bit at fives, he’s still a massively important piece in a set offense.
Not Enough T.J. Oshie
Yeah, him too. See above.
Those are massive upticks nearly across the board, and, really, more evidence as to Backstrom’s importance. As we wrote in December, “the trickle-down effect of a healthy Backstrom can’t be overstated. Just think about where Oshie is positioned on the power play and look at [the heat maps above].” Here’s hoping whatever kept him out of the end of last night’s game is just a minor issue, because he and Backstrom are a potent combo.
This was a key point in December - the Caps had been unlucky, both in terms of actual versus expected goals and the health of key contributors. Since then, that luck has changed and the results have as well. The Caps have been outscoring expectations where before they had been underperforming, but the returns of Backstrom and Oshie have also sparked the unit and increased those expectations dramatically:
The Caps were bad and unlucky in December; they’re good and lucky now. And, in this case, you’d rather be good than lucky... but you’ll certainly take both.