Dylan Strome scored a power-play goal on October 27. That was seven games ago, and it was the last time Washington’s power play converted. At 7.3 percent, the Capitals’ power play is now the worst in the league.
We saw it in evidence on Tuesday, when the Capitals sputtered a five-minute major power play against the Vegas Golden Knights. The Capitals recorded just one scoring chance during those five minutes, the same number the Knights had after William Karlsson’s shorthanded attempt.
It’s clear something is broken with Washington’s power play, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Because, under the covers, Washington’s power play is supposed to be good. They attempt 113.2 shots per hour, 10th highest in the league. They generate 10.5 expected goals per hour, third best in the league behind Florida and Pittsburgh. They’re getting dangerous chances too, with 32.1 per hour, fifth best. And consulting HockeyViz’s heatmap of Washington’s shot locations on the power play, they look fearsome.
That plus-23 percentage points in expected goals is in comparison to league average, placing Washington among the very best teams in the league. But it’s not translating into actual goals. Below is a plot of every NHL team. Their horizontal position is how many expected goals they generate on the PP, so rightmost is best. The vertical position is actual goals, so the top teams are the most successful on the scoreboard. Washington is at bottom-right — the supposedly-good-but-cursed zone.
So luck. It’s just bad luck. That’s why the Capitals are bad. They’re shooting 4.3 percent, worst in the league, and that explains everything. Nothing to see here. That was easy.
Except that’s a complete mismatch with what anyone watching the power play is observing. Just as the process numbers don’t square with the result numbers, the process numbers don’t square with what I’m seeing on the ice. For example, during that five minute major, here’s what happened:
That was a miserable exercise, but I think it helped me understand what’s going on better. Washington seems to be struggling to gain the offensive zone and get into formation. Without their best zone-entry player (Kuznetsov, who was being evaluated for injury during this power play), the Capitals failed six chances to get across the blue line, secure possession, and get players to their set positions.
For me, watching a team fail a zone entry is the most frustrating part of a bad power play. Whether its an attempted carry-in that gets interrupted by a stick check or a dump-in that they cannot chase (which I think they’re trying less this season), being unable to get organized makes it feel like the power play never really happens in the first place. Washington’s struggles to win puck battles, especially along the boards, is part of the problem, but so is puck movement in neutral as the they approach the blue line.
Once they actually get into formation, I think there’s cause to be optimistic about the power play. While they’re not activating Ovechkin well from the Ovi Spot (their biggest problem after getting into formation), they’re getting way more chances from the high-danger areas than they have in the past. Below are the HockeyViz heatmaps from the last four seasons. In every season you see the left faceoff dot lit up in brown — that’s Ovechkin. But this season (far right) you see way more attempts from the close to the net.
There’s a lot going on here, and most of it has to do with Ovechkin. He’s still getting looks from the Ovi Spot, but we all have the impression (rightly, I think) that those looks are not as clean as in seasons past. But Ovechkin is getting shots from other locations too. His overall attempt volume is up from 33.2 last season to 39.7 per hour, and his scoring-chance rate is way up from 9.7 to 16.9. (In most cases, because of its location, Ovechkin’s spot on the faceoff dot is not considered particularly dangerous by public models, which generally cannot account for puck movement before the shot or the individual finishing quality of the shooter.) Ovechkin’s lone power-play goal actually came from the other side of the net, and it came on the rush rather than from in formation. Overall, he’s shooting more and doing it from closer locations. Some of that might be a way of coping from the Ovi Spot not working (because of both bad luck and worse passes), but there seems to be a top-down tactical decision at play too.
“We need to have three, four [options],” Spencer Carbery said last month. “If they take [Ovechkin] away, what do we do? There’s a lot of different things that go into. It’s reinventing ourselves to be able to do multiple things – finding different ways to attack and adjust when penalty kills are on to what we are doing.”
And what they’re doing is getting a ton more offense from everyone else. When Ovi’s on the ice, expected goals by everyone except him are up from 5.9 per hour last season to 8.4 now. High-danger chances are up from 21.3 per hour (already a career high) to 27.9. Those are substantial increases, and they account for a lot of Washington’s brown blob close to the net in the heatmap above. Ovechkin himself is going to the net more than any time in his career — 5.9 high-danger chances per hour; he had averaged just 1.4 in the past six seasons.
I don’t know if we’re looking at a new era of the Washington power play, the post-Ovi Spot era. Maybe we’re just seeing them compensate for the Ovi Spot faltering. If this is the future though, maybe what we’re feeling is the growing pains of a dangerous new setup — hindered by poor neutral-zone play. Then again, I don’t know. This power play is so bad, I’m all jammed up. You explain it.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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