The Washington Capitals are off to their worst start in a decade after losing the opening two games of the 2022-23 regular season. A large part of the problem in both games has been their execution on the power play.
The Capitals have not scored once on the man advantage and are 0 for 9 to start the season. They are one of just two teams to have played in more than one game and been unable to convert.
“A lot of it is execution,” Laviolette said postgame Thursday. “We’ve got to be better with what we’re doing out on the ice. We’ll go back and continue to work on it, but for me, I think the execution has got to be better. The decision-making, it’s what you’re doing, it’s what you’re thinking, it’s how we’re moving the puck. It’s gotta be better.”
The Capitals’ power play is led by assistant coach Blaine Forsythe, who was first given the job by Adam Oates in 2013. Oates and Forsythe introduced the 1-3-1 and the Capitals eventually mastered the formation, giving them one of the best power plays in the league for years. Alex Ovechkin’s production in his office — he’s the NHL’s all-time leader in power-play goals — is one of the reasons he’s challenging Wayne Gretzky’s goals record. But nearly a decade later, the unit’s effectiveness is starting to wane despite new wrinkles being introduced by Forsythe.
The drop lately has been precipitous. The Caps ranked third in the NHL in power-play conversion (24.8 percent) during Peter Laviolette’s first season in charge. Then – last year happened. The team’s man-advantage unit dropped six percentage points overall and 13 percentage points in terms of power-play goals per hour (five points above average to eight points below) per Micah McCurdy’s model.
A lot of the historical prior success has come via Ovechkin’s one-timers from the left circle. The Caps captain does not believe there is an issue with the formation or strategy, but with the team’s decision-making within the 1-3-1 structure.
“I think execution,” Ovi said. “First power play, we hit the crossbar and then in the second period missed a wide-open net. I think execution and afraid to get simple play and get one extra shot to find the dirty goal.”
To see if any of that tracks, we can use McCurdy’s power-play heatmap. With the caveat that this sample is super small, it is nonetheless useful in seeing where Washington’s shots are coming from. Purple means the Caps shoot below average from a location; brown means above.
The Caps have big brown blobs in the Ovechkin (left circle) and Carlson (blue line, center) locations. There is very little action from other spots. If we isolate just the first power-play unit personnel (Carlson, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Strome, and Oshie), we see generally the same pattern.
More than half of Washington’s unblocked shots come from Ovechkin, with Carlson taking up a quarter. Oshie and Strome have produced no unblocked attempts so far.
Worse yet, the Caps saw more action happen in their own zone against Toronto. The Leafs doubled up the Capitals in expected goals – during Washington’s power play. Toronto had an xG score of 0.64, and Washington had 0.29, meaning that’s how many goals you’d “expect” the team to score based on the quality and quantity of their offense. In a full season, the attacking team should have an xG percentage of around 85-90 percent – not 33 percent.
Because we’re so early in the season, it’s not too difficult to summarize everything that has happened on the power play. So here goes:
Nothing happened on the final power play of the Toronto game, which came with under a minute left.
Righting the power play will be a necessity if the Capitals want to contend this season. It will also be a major factor long term in Ovechkin’s chase of Gretzky’s goals record.
The Capitals will likely get another chance with their special teams unit against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. The Habs were a perfect 4-for-4 on their penalty kill against the Toronto Maple Leafs in their first game of the season.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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