December 27, 2018. In the second period of the game against the Hurricanes, TJ Oshie scored a power-play goal assisted by John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin. Since then the once-vaunted Caps power play has gone silent. In their last 31 power-play opportunities, Washington has just one power-play goal. After several seasons of domination while a man up, it looks like the Caps are now just sorta okay at it.
The roster for the power play has been stable over the last two seasons and change: Alex Ovechkin on the Ovi Spot™, Nicklas Backstrom along the opposite half wall, John Carlson up high on the point, TJ Oshie in the slot, and Evgeny Kuznetsov floating below Backstrom. During the last two seasons, they’ve scored 49 power-play goals together. It looked like that success would continue this season, but the domination has eased off.
Those early returns were never going to last — the Caps scored four goals on six opportunities in their first game. But now the Caps are dipping below league average (around 22.5 percent), and despite positive vibes there may be reason for concern. It sure seems like the core of the power play isn’t running like it should.
If we use Alex Ovechkin as a proxy for the entire power play (he plays 90 percent of the team’s power-play time, so why not?), we can see a season-by-season drop-off. The numbers below are the Caps’ offensive events per hour minus their opponents since the start of the Trotz era.
Every rate is down significantly. My first thought upon seeing this was to worry if power-play tactics have changed. They haven’t. The hockeyviz heatmaps below show shot locations per person for the first power play unit from the last two years.
Ovechkin (purple) is still shooting a ton from the Ovi spot (43 percent of all attempts, up from 38), Carlson (black) still has his point shot, Backstrom is still the setup man, Oshie is still in the slot. Proportions have changed a bit (Oshie and Carlson down, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin up), and the shot locations of Evgeny Kuznetsov (orange) appear to have shifted away from crease and to lower danger areas. That’s noteworthy but likely not the main cause of the slowdown.
So we know that the Caps haven’t changed much once they get into power-play formation (aside from being one year older), and now I think we’re on to something. If the problem isn’t what happens in the offensive zone, the problem may be in getting into the offensive zone in the first place.
Back in 2015, Patrick Holden wrote a two-part series about how Marcus Johansson’s neutral-zone play facilitated controlled zone entries for the Caps, which allowed them to set up quickly and score efficiently. The power play remained effective even after Johansson’s exit, but now the Caps PP is struggling to keep play out of their own end. The opponent expected shorthanded goal rate has jumped from 0.9 to 1.4 per hour, and all opponent shorthanded attempts are up from 12.8 to 16.4 per hour. These are indications that the Caps’ lost offense is linked with defensive and transition play, which are foundering.
Johansson-style entries worked well even when the Caps didn’t have a ton of speed. Without a dependable controlled carry along the boards, the Caps now try to use speed (often Kuznetsov’s) to gain the zone with control, more often down the middle. This entry can work, but it depends on the puck-carrier to out-skill opponent stick checks stacked along the blue line. A successful zone entry of this type could lead to a dangerous rush attempt, but it has a higher failure rate, and those failures create more dangerous shorthanded attacks, of which we’re seeing a lot more recently.
I suspect that the Caps are making the right choice in their power-play formula and personnel. If they want to get their scoring back on track, the solution will be in neutral.
A short sidebar: Ovechkin’s production when moonlighting on the second power-play unit is a trifle. Washington’s shot-attempt rate falls 34 percent when in the 20 minutes he’s played without Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie and Carlson. PP1 reliably gets the best offensive numbers of any unit with Ovechkin, so the team would probably be better off lowering Ovechkin’s ice time after the first power-play shift. Also, shooting percentage can be discounted as a big driver of the drop-off. The Caps are shooting 13.3 percent right now, down just a tad from the 14.4 they’ve averaged over the last few seasons. Finally, I don’t put much stock in high-danger scoring chances as a measurement of Washington’s power-play shot quality. The Ovi Shot from the Ovi Spot comes from far enough up the ice that it’s not considered high danger algorithmically, even if you and I can consider the talent of the shooter and the movement prior to the shot and houserule it as highly dangerous.
Headline photo: Patrick McDermott
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.