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What the Hell is Right with the Caps’ Power Play?

A look at a resurgent Washington with the man advantage

NHL: Washington Capitals at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

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).

What the hell was wrong with the Caps’ power play?

Since then, they’ve been better - 22nd overall - but things really took off a month later:

For you visual learners, on the season, their rolling ten-game 5-on-4 goal rate looks like this:

via MoneyPuck

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:

via NatStatTrick

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:

On the left is pre-12/30, and on the right is season-to-date
via HockeyViz

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?

via NatStatTrick

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:

via MoneyPuck

The Caps’ expected goal rates with and without Backstrom (as we noted in December) has been and continues to be stark:

via HockeyViz

With Backstrom, they’re a good power play (think Florida Panthers); without... yikes (think Buffalo Sabres).

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.

via NatStatTrick

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:

via MoneyPuck

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.