Caps keep­ing faith in strug­gling power play

Cap­i­tals con­fi­dent man-ad­van­tage unit can re­gain its scor­ing touch

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

DAL­LAS — There’s tra­di­tion­ally a car­di­nal rule for when play­ing the Washington Cap­i­tals: stay out of the penalty box.

The Cap­i­tals have had the most ef­fec­tive power-play unit of the past decade, a fact of which op­pos­ing teams are well aware. But in the fi­nal 10 min­utes of a tied third pe­riod Fri­day night, the Dal­las Stars broke the car­di­nal rule twice, and Washington had two of its best-look­ing man­ad­van­tages of the past three weeks. It still didn’t score and even­tu­ally lost the game in over­time.

The Cap­i­tals are 1 for 27 on the power play over the past eight games, and though they didn’t score in three op­por­tu­ni­ties in Dal­las on Fri­day, the im­proved zone time and en­tries left Washington at least en­cour­aged af­ter how the unit has scuf­fled of late. As the team’s five-on-five of­fense has dried up dur­ing this three-game los­ing streak, the Cap­i­tals’ first of the sea­son, the power play’s strug­gles have grown more frus­trat­ing, no longer a re­li­able source of scor­ing.

“Al­most ev­ery year we have that kind of break when we felt like maybe we just have to change some­thing,” cap­tain Alex Ovechkin said. “We don’t have to change any­thing be­cause we top in the league if we play right way, if we play smart, if we do the right things.”

Ovechkin’s right, and while Washington’s 1-3-1 for­mat is cer­tainly pre­dictable, it has a track record of suc­cess. The Cap­i­tals had a 1-for-27 stretch around this time two years ago, and they still fin­ished with a top-five scor­ing per­cent­age. Washington is ranked 10th in the NHL with a 22.1 per­cent con­ver­sion rate, and that’s buoyed by its hot start. In the Cap­i­tals’ first 10 games, they had scored 13 goals in 35 power plays, an un­sus­tain­able 37.1 per­cent­age.

“If you look at the start, I thought it was al­most too good to be true,” cen­ter Nick­las Back­strom said. “We’d score on ev­ery­thing. You’re go­ing to have dips, and it’s go­ing to go up and down, but one thing we’ve got to re­al­ize is that we’ve got to work even harder on the power play to cre­ate these chances and make sure we stay on top of those guys.”

The strength of the Cap­i­tals’ power play is in its va­ri­ety: If a team’s fo­cus is on tak­ing away Ovechkin’s one-timer from the left face­off cir­cle, for­ward T.J. Oshie might be open in front of the net or de­fense­man John Carl­son at the point. But as op­po­nents em­ploy more in-zone pres­sure in penalty kills against Washington, the Cap­i­tals have strug­gled with their zone en­tries, and even when they get set up long enough for a good shot, they’ve of­ten been los­ing pos­ses­sion right af­ter that, wast­ing valu­able time and en­ergy re­triev­ing the puck and start­ing all over again. At its best, Washington can get into its for­ma­tion and cre­ate a qual­ity scor­ing chance through ex­tended pos­ses­sion and puck move­ment.

“That’s all we talk about,” Back­strom said. “You’ve got to get zone time, you’ve got to move the puck and you’ve got to come up with things to break down other teams.”

Washington’s top unit tends to stay on the ice for roughly 80 sec­onds of a two-minute power play, and while that group has stayed in­tact, coach Todd Reirden made some changes to his sec­ond unit against Dal­las on Fri­day. Right wing Tom Wil­son and cen­ter Travis Boyd re­placed Brett Con­nolly and Lars Eller, re­spec­tively. Reirden said part of his think­ing was spread­ing out the ice time with the Cap­i­tals play­ing their sec­ond game in as many nights.

“We’re just try­ing to get back to giving play­ers op­por­tu­ni­ties, giving them op­por­tu­ni­ties in sit­u­a­tions and go­ing with some dif­fer­ent guys,” Reirden said. “Some­times when you don’t have a ton of suc­cess - and for us, the ma­jor­ity of our ice time is spread out with our first group, so maybe not a com­pletely full eval­u­a­tion with our sec­ond group - we wanted to look at some dif­fer­ent things and give some dif­fer­ent peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity.”

The one power-play goal the Cap­i­tals scored dur­ing this eight-game stretch was a tip by Oshie in front of the net against Carolina, Carl­son’s shot glanc­ing off Oshie’s blade and into the net. “Some­times when you can’t find a way to score when you have that much level of ta­lent on a unit, you some­times have to sim­plify things,” Oshie said that night. Just as it does now, the power play seemed to be on the cusp of break­ing through then, feared by any team who dares to take a penalty against Washington.

“I’m not wor­ried about it,” Ovechkin said. “We’re go­ing to be fine.”

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