On Friday night, the Washington Capitals took the league lead in a not-awesome stat. When Chris Tierney scored that shorthanded goal, the Capitals’ season-long shorty tally hit the number nine, tying them with the Detroit Red Wings for worst in the league.
So, uh, like, what gives?
Let’s start with the most likely culprit: goalies. The Washington Capitals have the league’s sixth worst power-play save percentage, 84.5. That is a failure shared by both Caps goalies (Holtby has allowed four shorthanded goals; Samsonov five), but if we were to place blame on them alone we’d be obscuring a much bigger story. Shorthanded goals end in the net, but they begin up the ice, where we’ve already seen problems with Washington’s power play.
Below is a line graph of Washington’s power-play offense (blue) and opponents’ shorthanded offense (red) independent of goaltending, using Natural Stat Trick’s reckoning of expected goals. I’ve also included approximate three-year league averages for comparison.
Washington’s power-play offense has hit a lull lately, and they’ve been plagued by two spurts of terrible defense (games 23 to 33, and again since game 44). Somewhat curiously, that first explosion in shorthanded chances ended just as offense dipped around game 33. More on that later.
Underneath both the sputtering offense and the increase in shorthanded chances seems to be persistent trouble acquiring the offensive zone and getting into the team’s signature diamond formation. Once in formation, the Caps seem to be plagued by too much predictability. The former could be solved by adjusting tactics and personnel for carrying the puck through neutral and into the offensive zone; the latter may be harder.
Washington often relies on a modified version of the strong-side D shot formation. From Hockey Plays and Strategies, here’s a diagram:
In Washington’s example, F1 is often Backstrom, D1 is Carlson, and D2 (actually F4) is Alex Ovechkin. F1 (Backstrom) holds the puck along the half wall, then drops a pass to D1 (Carlson), who should fake a shot and then pass to D2 (Ovechkin), waiting in the Ovi Spot.
The Carlson-to-Ovechkin portion of this play is a well-oiled machine, but we’ve seen more and more problems with getting into the initial formation and also with puck movement prior to the Ovi Shot. Below I’ve included video of every shorthanded goal the Caps have allowed this season, and though there’s a definite sharpshooter fallacy in analyzing this way, I suspect many problems are around that F1-to-D1 pass. Below you’ll see Kuznetsov (filling in at F1 as the Caps experiment with new looks) telegraphing his pass to D1. You’ll see Dmitry Orlov (with the second unit) at D1 failing to hold the blue line. You’ll also see a handful of examples of other forwards losing rebounds or battles down low, plus some just straight up goofs.
Here are those goals, staring with the most recent:
Connor Brown intercepts a bad pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov in the offensive zone. Chris Tierney beats Samsonov to score the most recent shorty.
Braden Holtby makes a poor decision, playing the puck out of the net and feeding it to Ryan Johansen for an easy goal.
Alex Ovechkin makes a strange pass onto the boards indirectly to John Carlson, who can’t get the puck away from Blake Coleman. Coleman beats Samsonov up close.
Nicklas Backstrom loses a board battle, compounded by an iffy backcheck from John Carlson. Black Coleman beats Holtby.
The team fails to get into formation as Kuznetsov’s pass to Carlson gets interrupted by a good hip check. Kevin Hayes beats Holtby.
A failed dump-and-chase leads to the puck heading in other direction, where Warren Foegele beats Holtby.
The second power-play unit goofs when Dmitry Orlov can’t keep the puck in at the blue line. Charlie Coyle beats Samsonov.
Jay Beagle wins a faceoff near his own net. A not great backcheck follows, then Tim Schaller beats Samsonov.
The second power-play unit blows a pass-in zone entry, then Kasperi Kapanen beats Samsonov for the first shorty of the year.
I doubt this is the case, but if Washington’s power play has truly been “solved” as a result of intensive scouting and counterplay, that would be a catastrophe. The Caps have feasted on a very good man advantage for more than five years. The Ovi Shot from the Ovi Spot is an institution, worth nearly 100 goals. Looking at the videos above, we see shorthanded goals coming from failures to gain the zone and get into formation, mistakes in moving the puck within formation, and just plain beef-ups.
It seems more likely to me that the team can get back to elite status if they just retool their breakout and neutral-zone play, and then smarten up just a tad once they’re in the diamond. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, but I have not been encouraged by the adjustments the power-play coach, Blaine Forsythe, has made thus far. If anything, we’ve seen those adjustments lead to even more problems.
In the season’s first 26 games, the Caps netted 17 goals (19 for, 2 against) from the power play. That was good for top-ten status, In the 26 games since, they’ve netted just 9 goals (16 for, 7 against). That’s the sixth worst result in the league. It’s time to make a change.
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