Photo: Patrick Smith
About two weeks ago, we previewed the special teams matchup that loomed between the Washington Capitals and their First Round opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers. Special teams ended up playing an important role in more than one game of that series, so wise men and women will take note of this preview as well.
In the Caps/Flyers preview, we outlined the Caps penalty kill as well as the Flyers power play and PK. The Caps do not alter their PK from team to team, so another breakdown of that will be unnecessary, but you might want a refresher on how the Caps kill penalties. There will be similarities and there will be differences, so buckle up.
|Washington Capitals||Pittsburgh Penguins|
|Power Play Percentage||21.9% (5th)||18.4% (16th)|
|Penalty Kill Percentage||85.1%(2nd)||84.4% (5th)|
|Power Play Opportunities||251 PPs (19th)||261 PPs (10th)|
|Penalty Kill Opportunities||256 PKs (16th)||257 PKs (14th)|
The Pittsburgh Penguins penalty kill was not nearly as poor as the Flyers PK in the regular season. With less than 1 percent difference between the Caps and Pens PKs, neither holds a big edge. The Capitals power play outperformed the Pens unit all season though. The Pens power play should be labeled a disappointment considering the talent that they can trot out on the top unit. In the season series, the Caps were only 2 for 16 in PPs against the Pens, and the Penguins were a meager 1 for 18.
The difference in power play opportunities for each team does not appear to be significant enough to warrant further comment, but the disparity between power play percentages should make the Penguins want to play a softer, penalty bare series. Add that to the dominance on special teams the Capitals showed in Round One, and we are likely to see few penalties called.
The Caps are going to trot out the same units as the Flyers series. The first unit PP will feature Nicklas Backstrom on the half-wall, John Carlson up top, Marcus Johansson in the corner and net front, T.J. Oshie in the high slot and Alex Ovechkin in his spot.
The Penguins, when setup, will look very similar to the Flyers in their roles with all stars all over the place. Here is that personnel (understudies will be listed second).
The Pens basic setup is similar to the Flyers. They setup an umbrella and try to get shots through with a strong net front presence. The Caps were able to stymie the prowess of Wayne Simmonds in their First Round series, and they will hope to limit the impact of Hornqvist and Kunitz in this one. I listed Malkin and Crosby as co-inhabitants of two spots on their PP because they kind of are. Every player on the Pens power play is encouraged to move and switch (the net front presence less so), and they do. It is not surprising to find Letang in the corner or Crosby up top. The movement of the top of that umbrella can get some open looks, so the ability of the Caps PKers to stick to their lanes and assignments will be paramount.
On the PK, the Penguins have been using five forwards for the majority of time: Matt Cullen, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Tom Kuhnhackl. All but Eric Fehr are fleet of foot, and shorthanded opportunities can come in bunches for these guys. On defense Ian Cole sees the largest portion of minutes with Letang, Ben Lovejoy, and Trevor Daley rounding out their four most used defenders on the PK.
As mentioned before, we already broke down the Caps PK last time out. They will not change much as it has been successful all year. The cliff-notes version is easy though. They employ a diamond with pressure outward. The side points act as shot blockers; the top forward pressures the top of the umbrella; and the net front presence of the Pens will be tied up with the net front defender of the Caps, usually after the shot.
Let’s take a look at the Pens PP and PK. PK first.
As zone entries go, where the Flyers defended with their second forward on the boards in the neutral zone, the Pens look to guard the center of the ice like the Caps do.
As we can see in the GIF above, the Pens don’t hesitate to anticipate the neutral-zone drop play that the Caps will sometimes use to enter the zone. The Caps need to be wary of this, but perhaps there is a way to exploit it too.
In the GIF above, the Caps have two men behind the original puck carrier, John Carlson. This allows Backstrom, the primary receiver of the drop pass to read the forward and either carry it himself or hit the main entry man, Johansson, with speed. All the drop pass does is delay the institution of their basic swing breakout, where Backstrom swings in front of Carlson to read the forward and either carry it himself or hit the main entry man, Johansson, with speed. The delay allows Carlson to back up the defending team to give more space to the Swedes.
Carlson must be cautious when making the drop (in the Caps drop entry, he turns all the way around), but he could also be opportunistic. A couple fake drops could throw the Pens off their game a bit and possibly cause some breakdowns. Another option would be to limit the men behind Carlson to one. Having only one teammate to drop the puck to would be riskier if a turnover occurred, but a good rush opportunity would be waiting if Backstrom can make a good pass (he is pretty good at those after all), especially if the Pens forward tries to jump the play.
In the zone, the Pens are the antithesis of what the Flyers penalty kill was to start the First Round. They use a standard box formation with pressure. The box will also rotate into a diamond when pressure is applied to various portions of the zone. After Game Three, the Flyers found some PK success. The change was in the amount of pressure. In the first three games, there was zero pressure from the Flyers PK, and the Caps scored eight PP goals. In the next three games, the Flyers’ “plus one” forward in their triangle plus one formation began pressuring Carlson and Backstrom, the Caps scored zero PP goals. The Pens will use even more pressure.
The Penguins will be using a low-high press (in actuality it is more of a high-low press) in their own zone on the PK. The strong side forward will pressure the half-wall from the point down to take away that pass. If Backstrom turns his back to the center of the ice or the strong-side defenseman reads any kind fumble of the puck, he will double team Backstrom. The same will go for everyone on the ice. The closest defender will pressure and the next guy is waiting to pounce. In this case, when the half-wall is being double-teamed, the weak side winger is asked to come down and cover the slot, and the weak side defenseman actually abandons the front of the net to take the corner option for the Caps, Johansson.
The Flyers converted to the Czech press after Game Three, which uses the forward to pressure from top down without the added pressure of the defenseman. On the other hand, the low-high press causes more turnovers and forced decisions but can also leave guys open if the power play can make the right reads. Backstrom will need to make quick decisions when he feels the added pressure of the defenseman, because a nifty pass is all the Caps will need to find an open Ovechkin, Oshie or Carlson.
Notice the positioning of Bonino (#13) in the above play. The way the Pens elect to take away Ovechkin in their penalty kill is to defend the pass from the half-wall to the point first and foremost (in the past they shadowed Ovechkin more). The Caps power play will need to use the area below the goal line much more in this series, as it may not be easy for Backstrom to slide the puck to Carlson. He will need to rim the puck to switch sides and use Johansson for quick one-timed passes to Oshie or Ovechkin. If Carlson and Niskanen do get time with the puck up top, they may be able to get shots through as the Pens PK scrambles to get back in position.
Now for the Penguins power play.
The Penguins love the drop entry. Like the Caps’ drop, the Pens have two players, usually Crosby and Kessel, drop back behind the primary puck carrier, Letang. The Caps may be able to cause a turnover if they read the drop correctly. Letang does not turn around like Carlson does, but his eyes forward allow him to read the four opponents on the ice, mitigating mistakes. Letang is also not shy about abandoning the drop and gaining the zone on his own if the defending team gives him the space.
The Caps will need to read and react well to slow the entry from gaining the zone. They may also look to pressure Letang before he reaches his own blue line to throw the timing off or cause a turnover. Where the Caps usually wait for Carlson and Niskanen to start their march up the ice, the Pens are fine with any of their PPers collecting and starting the breakout. Letang, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel may all be seen in this series leading them up the ice.
Once in the zone, the Penguins power play will look very similar to the Flyers. The three umbrella players will pass the puck and rotate to get in a good shooting lane. Two slot players will try to create traffic and may become low pass options if an outlet is needed. Hornqvist becomes a low pass option more frequently than Simmonds did, and the other slot man cycles in and out as well.
They use the side of the net pass from the side of the umbrella a lot, so the net front Caps defensemen needs to be in position to clear a rebound on a tip play or to block the pass across crease. The movement can cause defending PKers to lose their lanes, but a disciplined PK such as the Caps will try to stay in the shooting lanes with their sticks in passing lanes, pounce on loose pucks and get them out.
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