Why Caps have NHL's best power play

Why Caps have NHL's best power play
November 6, 2013, 6:30 pm
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Caps take pride in their penalty kill

Washington Capitals center Marcus Johansson (90), of Sweden, celebrates his goal with Nicklas Backstrom (19), also of Sweden, Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, and Troy Brouwer (20) as New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, center, of Kazakhstan, looks on during the second period an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Washington. Also seen are New York Islanders center Casey Cizikas (53) and Travis Hamonic (3).

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Thanks to a dominant 4-for-6 night on the power play and a perfect 5-for-5 performance on the penalty kill, the Capitals woke up Wednesday morning as the NHL’s leaders in both categories.

To get an idea how rare that is, the last team to lead the NHL in both power-play percentage and penalty kill success were the 1984-85 New York Islanders.

On Thursday we’ll explore the reasons the Caps’ PK has been so good. Tonight, we’ll focus on the power play.

A few weeks ago, I asked an NHL general manager why, since the Capitals have been so successful on the power play, don’t more teams mimic their 1-3-1 setup, which features Mike Green at the point, Nicklas Backstrom on the right halfwall, Marcus Johansson on the right goal line, Troy Brouwer in the slot, and Alex Ovechkin in the left circle.

I was told that not every team has the same skill set as those five players.

Ovechkin agrees. Adam Oates isn’t so sure.

“If teams take me away or a guy is just standing in front of me all the time, then different guys [will] score goals,” said Ovechkin, who scored half of his 32 goals last season on the power play and half of his 12 goals this season on the power play.

“The power play is not about me. I don’t have to score. Of course, if I have the chance to score then I’m going to put the puck in the net. But we have Brouwer in front of the net, we have Greenie who can score, we have Backy who can shoot the puck and JoJo. Everyone can score goals in different situations.”

When he replaced Dale Hunter, one of the first things Oates did was install his power-play formation. It’s the same one the Lightning used in Tampa and the Devils used in New Jersey when Oates coached there.

So why, after the Caps finished first in the NHL last season with a 26.8 percent success rate, wouldn’t more teams use the same 1-3-1?

“I don’t know,” Oates said. “It’s a copy cat league. I see other teams using it, yeah. There’s no question personnel factors into it. But we still have to make reads.”

You could make the argument that if you give any NHL team two players like Ovechkin and Backstrom, it will have a successful power play, no matter the formation. After all, the Caps finished with the NHL’s best power play in 2009-10 and ranked second the year before. In both of those seasons Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau used Ovechkin on the left point and Green on the right point.

“To be honest, when Bruce was here we just played a different system and different hockey,” Ovechkin said. “The power play was different. We used probably more up top than we did down low. But again, we had success and we were number one power play as well. But you can see who was there -- me, Backy and Greenie --  three guys who know each other well and understand each other. This chemistry means a lot for this organization and for this franchise.”

In the one season between Boudreau and Oates, the Capitals finished 18th on the power play [16.7 percent] under Dale Hunter.

“Of course, when it was Hunter here we didn’t [practice] lots of power plays,” Ovechkin said. “If we had a power play we just did dump and chase and that’s it and we’d change [lines]. But again, [Oates] is the guy who likes to be involved in everything -- power play, PK, five-on-five. He was a tremendous player, he made lots of assists and he knows how to play and he just tells our guys and tells me what we have to do.”

Against the Islanders it didn’t seem to matter who was on the ice for the Capitals or where they were positioned; the power play just clicked.

“Teams know what they’re going to do, but they do a good job executing, and we broke down on some details,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “They’ve got weapons up top in 52 [Green] and 8 [Ovechkin] and on that weak side. It’s not like we don’t know what they’re doing, but you have to execute and we didn’t do a good job of that.”

Oates said a few things factor into a power play’s success – repetition, faceoff wins, and depth at several positions. On the Caps’ second power play unit, John Carlson can man the point, Marty Erat can work the halfwall, Mikhail Grabovski can be on the goal line, Joel Ward or Tom Wilson can be in the slot and Eric Fehr can be in Ovechkin’s office in the left circle.

“I think one of the things that helps our power play,” Oates said, “is depth at those positions.”

As a result, Ovechkin said opponents should be wary of taking penalties against the Capitals the way the Islanders did Tuesday night.

“Teams are going to be afraid to take penalties against us because we’re going to score or we’re going to try to score.