Throughout most of this season, opposing teams carried this mantra into their games against Washington: Stop the Capitals on the power play, and you stop the Capitals.
Problem was, nobody could contain the five-man unit of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer and Mike Green.
At least until this month.
The Caps have fallen from first in the NHL on the man-advantage to fourth, largely because they’ve gone 1-for-31 on the power play over their past nine games.
“I don’t think anything’s really changed,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said when asked about his team’s struggles on the man-advantage.
“I think it’s our execution. Maybe guys are a little tired, being used too much in other [penalty killing] situations. Being a little stale. Teams are really conscious of us and throwing different [defensive] wrinkles at us. Good goalies making saves. Missing chances. A little bit of everything.”
The Caps’ success rate has dropped from roughly 26 percent – it was as high as 38 percent back in November -- down to 22.2 percent.
A big reason has been opponents’ willingness to shadow Ovechkin in the offensive left wing circle. Another has been the pressure applied to the halfwall where Backstrom likes to orchestrate. A third has been a willingness to collapse in front of Green and tie up Brouwer in the slot.
“We’ve got to give them new looks a little bit,” Brouwer said, “maybe whenever we get a little stale. Other teams key on it and we’ve got to find ways to create some openings.
“With Ovi back in the lineup I’m sure that might open up a few more opportunities because teams like to shadow him pretty closely.
“We’ve got to make our reads, not get frustrated, not force plays. That’s what makes us successful.”
The Caps’ 5-0 victory over the struggling Montreal Canadiens was somewhat an anomaly in that the Caps scored five even-strength goals and went 0-for-8 on the man-advantage. The Caps have lost 18 of the 27 games in which they have been held without a power –play goal [9-12-6], while winning 14 of the 25 games in which they have scored on the power play [14-9-2].
Brouwer said the Caps can’t be fooled into thinking there will be an avalanche of goals simply because they scored five against the Canadiens on Saturday night, especially against a goaltender like the one they’re facing tonight in Buffalo, U.S. Olympian Ryan Miller.
“We can’t think one game is good enough and goals are going to come because we put five in the other night,” Brouwer said. “[The Sabres] sit back a little bit and wait for their opportunities and we have to make sure we’re not turning over pucks and not giving them any life.
“That’s why we were losing, because we’ve been trying to create too much and pucks are coming back the other way.”