The Return of the Ovech-king & The Powerless Power PlayPosted on January 30, 2014 by Adam Stringham
The losing streak is over, the king has returned to his
teammates, and the Washington Capitals are still within striking distance of a
playoff spot. Strong possession has been the trend of late, in twelve of the
last fourteen games the Capitals have been the better possession team. The term
“puck luck” has been thrown around a lot in regard to the Capitals and their
recent struggles, especially in regards to their shooting. This was documented
and graphed by Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Peter Hassett.
The Capitals shot 14.7 percent on Saturday night against Montreal, and Braden Holtby received a much needed confidence boost in the form of a shutout. At least for a night, the Capitals were a lucky hockey team. The Capitals played a strong game on both ends of the rink, and statistically it was the team’s third best possession game of the season (65.0% FF close). That being said, the Capitals had trouble on the power play on Saturday, and despite the Comcast Sportsnet feed having two seconds left on the Capitals power play when Ovechkin scored the eventual GWG; officially the Capitals once again failed to convert on their opportunities with the extra man. The Capitals have only tallied PPGs in two of their last ten games.
Here is how the Capitals have been performing on the power play of late. Over the last 10 games the Capitals have spent 63.4 minutes on the power play and have scored only three times. In those same minutes the team has 53 shots on goal, resulting in a measly shooting percentage of 5.67%. This season the Capitals have the third highest shooting percentage, on the power play, in the NHL (15.2%). The league average is 12.58%, so this recent stretch of trouble on the power play could be attributed to the Capitals simply regressing to the mean or bad puck luck. However I think that there is more to it than that.
Shot quality impacts how often a team scores, but it is not often easy to determine how successful a team is at generating high quality chances; especially in 5v5 play. The possession statistics that are currently used to determine the likelihood of future success (corsi and fenwick) do not take shot quality into consideration. On the power play or penalty kill every aspect of play is magnified (missed assignments, bad passes, turnovers, etc.) including shot quality.
Earlier in the season, when the Capitals were relying almost exclusively on their power play to score goals, Adam Oates stated that the PP is designed to score and generate high quality chances even if the opposition is keying down on Alexander Ovechkin. In my opinion the Capitals have two A+ grade looks; the previously mentioned backdoor play, and the feed to the slot. In addition to those A+ chances the Capitals have a few other go to looks:
In the picture above, the Lightning player in between the circles has to position himself to eliminate Brouwer; opening up the passing lane to a streaking Ovechkin for a PPG. This play works because the defense has to respect Brouwer’s shot. The Capitals do not generally have a lot of movement on the power play, so this play is special.
The Brouwitzer (slot pass)
The slot pass was a credible scoring threat for the Capitals at the start of this year and most of last season. With Ovechkin tightly marked a small passing lane opens to Brouwer, resulting in a high grade chance and a goal.
Troy Brouwer has one power play goal since November 9, and that goal was not from a bang-bang pass to the slot. Brouwer no longer represents a consistent scoring threat on the power play, and has looked uncomfortable there the majority of the year. With no production from the slot, opposition defenses and goaltending have little problem loosely guarding Brouwer and focusing on Ovechkin. The chances are there for whomever is in the slot for the Caps, but they seem unable to finish.
Recently the Capitals have seemed more inclined to utilize another one of their looks, the stuff, than to pass to the slot man. The stuff is a play that works only when the goalie and defense is caught off guard, or over commits to blocking passes from down low. Marcus Johansson seems to be the Cap most likely to go to those dirty areas on the power play, here is a great example of when the stuff should be executed.
Notice how out of sorts the entire Lightning defense is at this juncture, Marcus had a lot of space to work with on this successful stuff attempt. Of late if feels that the Capitals will attempt to force the stuff even if it is not given to them, perhaps to avoid passing it into the black hole of possession that waits in the slot.
The Ovie Spot
The Capitals have also seen a decrease in the quality of chances that they are generating from the one timer, specifically from the circle (or Ovie spot). The Ovechkin one timer from the circle is usually a scoring chance, and can lead to a lot of goals, but penalty killers and goalies are cheating to take away that angle from Ovechkin. It does not help that the Capitals have not been passing as crisply as we have seen in the past; in my opinion Mike Green is much better than John Carlson at putting the puck in Ovechkin’s wheel house on the power play. In this picture below Ovechkin is able to take advantage of the space afforded to him on the Capitals 5v3.
Quick System Comparison
The Capitals and Penguins own the league’s top two power plays, or have for the majority of the season. The Capitals rely on a very structured system once they get the puck into the zone, puck movement is the key for the Caps. The Capitals have a set number of looks for each puck location, while Pittsburgh has a much more fluid power play. The Penguins focus on player movement until the perfect opportunity presents itself, regardless of where the player may be on the ice. They rarely have players standing still for long, they try to create chaos among the penalty killers. Personally I prefer player movement, it reminds me of Boudreau’s power play when Mike Green used to sneak down from the point. Both methods can be very effective. The Capitals power play reflects the personality of their coach, rigid and calculating. The power play system is sound but the Capitals need to improve upon their execution if success is to be had.
The Capitals have quite a few good looks in their power play arsenal, but they require very fine passing plays and quick decision making. To return the power play to its early season glory the Capitals will need to focus on execution. The player in the slot is the lynchpin of the Capitals power play, if the defense does not need to respect his shot, they are free to focus on limiting the time and space of the Caps parameter players. The weak play of the slot player has caused the Capitals to not generate the high quality chances that we routinely saw at the beginning of the season. Brouwer and Ward will either have to improve in their execution, or be replaced on the power play. I would like to see either Eric Fehr or Tom Wilson get time the slot. A run to make the playoffs will require a strong power play; especially if Grabowski (one of the Caps best possession players) is out of the lineup for any extended period of time after his injury in Newark.