The special teams battle between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals will be one to keep an eye on when the series commences on Thursday. Both power plays were dominant in the regular season, and both penalty kills finished the year in the top ten. An edge here is something the Leafs will need if they hope to knock off the Caps.
You will certainly recognize the Leafs power play as they use the same setup as the Caps, and their penalty kill may be familiar albeit one the Caps regularly see rather than employ. Let’s take a look.
|Power Play %||23.1 (4th)||23.8 (2nd)|
|Penalty Kill %||83.8 (7th)||82.5 (10th)|
|Power Play Opportunities||247 (13th)||244 (16th)|
|Penalty Kill Opportunities||272 (5th)||251 (12th)|
Their special teams stats are strikingly similar. The Caps and Leafs both enjoy success on the power play and penalty kill. Neither team draws a higher than average amount of penalties. The Caps’ only significant edge over the Leafs in these numbers is the number of power plays they have given to opponents where they rank fifth in the league, and it isn’t as if the Leafs are super disciplined.
In the season series the Caps went two for nine on the power play, while the Leafs finished four for 14. Half of the Caps’ minors were hooks or holds against the speedy Maple Leafs. Both teams need to have the mindset that the only way to best the opponent’s power play is to limit their opportunities, i.e. stay out of the box.
Because both teams use a 1-3-1 formation on the power play, it may be easiest to define the Maple Leafs players by the Caps power play specialist they emulate. So, we will start with the Caps.
On top of the Caps 1-3-1 formation has been newcomer Kevin Shattenkirk on power play one with Alex Ovechkin in the Ovi Spot. Matt Niskanen and John Carlson sit in these spots on the second power play.
Nicklas Backstrom mans the half-wall, Marcus Johansson in the corner and net-front, and TJ Oshie in the slot on power play one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Justin Williams respectively round out power play two.
For the Leafs, Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev man the top of the 1-3-1. Rookies William Nylander and Mitch Marner sit in the Ovi Spot. Auston Matthews and Tyler Bozak sit on the half-wall, Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk man the corner and net-front, while Connor Brown and Nazem Kadri sit in the slot. The Maple Leafs 1-3-1 is less stagnant than the Caps, so some movement between positions isn’t unusual.
On the penalty kill, The Caps will primarily use six forwards and four defensemen. Jay Beagle with Daniel Winnik, Tom Wilson with Lars Eller, and Backstrom with Oshie are used at forward. Carlson with Karl Alzner and Niskanen with Brooks Orpik are used primarily on defense.
The Leafs have less players they feel comfortable with playing the penalty kill than the Capitals. Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and Leo Komarov are the mainstays on forward. Brian Boyle has been getting some penalty kill time since coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Kasperi Kapanen has been playing on the penalty kill since coming up to the big squad. On defense, they will ice Morgan Reilly, Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Nikita Zaitsev pretty exclusively.
Let’s break down the tape from the April 4 matchup between the two squads.
As mentioned earlier, the Leafs will use a 1-3-1 formation on the power play, and the Caps will use a wedge plus one to combat it.
The wedge plus one formation that the Caps will use on the PK (a triangle in front of the net and a challenging forward) is usually a bit more aggressive than a standard wedge plus one. The defensemen will challenge the puck carrier if he travels below the hashmarks on the boards creating more of a diamond formation. When the puck goes out to the point, the Caps will be in a traditional wedge plus one.
While the Leafs PP looks like the one that the Caps use, it functions a bit differently. They don’t have a trigger man like Ovi, so they rely on shots with traffic and little net front plays. They have quite a few tricks up their sleeves, one of which can be seen on their goal from April 4.
James van Riemsdyk uses his big body to shield his stick from the defenders. Bozak’s pass is on the tape for van Riemsdyk to expertly deflect the puck to the back door. Yes, Orlov over-commits, but the play may have beaten him if he was in the correct position as well. The Caps could and should use this play against the Leafs.
The Caps 1-3-1 will feature a bit less movement than the Leafs, and the Leafs will look to stymie the Caps with a hybrid diamond/wedge.
When the puck travels below the hashmarks, the Leafs will wall off the slot. The weakside defender will move to take away Oshie and Williams. Patience and movement will be key to opening up options down here.
The weakside forward is in charge of Ovechkin. He will shadow him up and down the backdoor. When this happens, Ovi has a tendency to camp backdoor. I would like to see him mix that up with being up higher to open up the net front.
When he is closer to the point, his shadow is taken out of the play opening up more space for everyone to operate. Because of the positioning of the Leafs, shots from Backstrom and Kuznetsov will be open and may be needed.
The most frequently open shots will probably be from center point, so switches like this can open Ovi up to more shot opportunities as well as forcing decisions from defenders. In this case, it opened up a pass across the royal road to Shattenkirk.
The wrinkles and adjustments will be the most important thing to keep an eye on in the series. On the face, both teams have the special teams units to succeed. The team that makes the right adjustments at the right time will be the one to gain the edge here.
If you made it this far, your voice deserves to be heard. Who do you think has the upper hand on special teams?
Headline photo: Maddie Meyer
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