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The Washington Capitals again owned one of the best power plays (PP) in the regular season this year, finishing tied for third at 23.1%. Their 57 power play goals accounted for nearly 22% of their overall goal scoring.

Going into the playoffs, it is a strength that Washington will, in part, rely on to help them win games. In the last three playoffs, PP goals have accounted for just under a quarter of the total amount of goals scored league-wide. In a tight series, it can be the difference between winning and losing.

PlayoffTotal Goals ScoredTotal PP goalsPercentage
201647811524%
20154489621%
201452011823%

This season, Alex Ovechkin finished tied for first in the NHL in PP goals with 17, while Nicklas Backstrom led the league in PP points with 35.

The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan wrote an interesting piece on their PP and how opposing team’s know that Ovechkin’s one timer is coming yet can’t prevent it. There were a few quotes that stood out.

From Bruce Boudreau:

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“He’s scored 250 goals like that from that spot. Every team has designed things to do, but if he gets the shot away, if it doesn’t hit you, it’s in the net. … He’s that good. I’ve seen him for five years do that to everybody. We can design all we want. The idea, I guess, is to prevent them from making that play over to him. And we weren’t able to do that. He’s going to score against everybody doing that, and I think he’s feeling it a little bit right now.”

And Kevin Shattenkirk:

“I think the way that this power play seems to utilize the other openings and the other plays that wind up opening up from them shading him so much, it forces teams to just have to just kill in a regular way… Everyone’s too scared to go to [Backstrom] because if one guy runs out of plays, he’s able to make a pass and then everything’s really opened up.”

The last sentence there from Shattenkirk is the key one. Despite all the attention Ovechkin receives, the PP runs through Backstrom on the opposite half-wall. Ovechkin scores if Backstrom is able to set up the play and work the puck around either directly across, through the point man at the top of their formation, or down low to a man on the goal line who looks for Ovechkin at the backdoor.

Ovechkin takes the majority of their shots, but as we can see, Backstrom is the ring leader. He drives the bus.

PlayersPP GoalsPP PointsPP SOGPP TOI/game5v4 pts/60
Nik Backstrom835303:037.47
Alex Ovechkin1726993:434.88
Marcus Johansson519172:494.98
John Carlson316502:384.58
Evgeny Kuznetsov314242:005.21
TJ Oshie713372:543.15
Justin Williams510252:042.97
Matt Niskanen19181:473.9
Kevin Shattenkirk827513:29*5.91

Washington runs a 1-3-1 with Ovechkin in his patented one-timer spot, Backstrom on the other side of the zone, the newly-acquired Shattenkirk up top, TJ Oshie in the middle/rover role, and primarily Marcus Johansson in the down low spot.

The Video Room

I have been watching tape since the match-up was decided in order to figure out what works and what definitely does not. The first thing we can decipher with absolute certainty is that sitting back in a tight-knit box will lead to the Capitals power play picking the PK apart.

Here is Ovechkin’s first goal of the night against the St. Louis Blues, who are in a tight box protecting the house. Backstrom effortlessly sets up the play without being pressured for what turns out to be a relatively easy goal for Ovechkin:

Recently, the Leafs saw Washington score firsthand against a passive PK of their own. If teams overcommit to Ovechkin, Backstrom can shoot himself and now they also have the added bomb of a shot from Shattenkirk.

So, which teams have actually had some success against the Caps power play?

The Islanders managed to kill off 17/19 penalties, with both PP goals against coming in the same game (one off the rush, the other on a Niskanen point shot from the left side of the zone through traffic). Watching the tape of those penalty kills (PK), one thing leaps right off the page: They were extremely aggressive.

When Washington tries to set up in the video below, the half-wall is rushed immediately. Backstrom makes the logical play and moves the puck up top to create some spacing and maintain clean possession, but the Islanders again pressure immediately. When the puck is moved to the half-wall to Backstrom, Clutterbuck doesn’t break stride one bit and instead pushes right down to maintain speed. Meanwhile, the rest of the PK maintains a base triangle in the house so that when Clutterbuck skates to the wall and the puck moves back up top, Cizikas pushes up and Clutterbuck slides into his spot.

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Here is the same thing playing out later in the game, with Backstrom trying to set up and Islanders penalty killers chasing him down all the way in the corner.

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Later in the season, when the Capitals and Islanders met again, a similar scenario occurs. Even though Washington wins the faceoff and tries to set up, Ovechkin is pressured immediately and the puck is iced. When Washington regains the zone and possession, Kulemin squares up in their formation and then attacks Backstrom on the wall, leading to another clearance.

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Unlike traditional PPs, the key thing to keep in mind with Washington is that the player down low and the player in the slot are often the two least dangerous players on the ice. The Ovechkin-Shattenkirk-Backstrom umbrella up top is lethal; all three can score at any time. By comparison, the player down low picking the puck up around the goal line is not that scary from a scoring perspective. The player in the slot can be if he has time or is able to get a one-timer off, but he can be closed off quickly.

Another team to have success against Washington on the PK this season is the Columbus Blue Jackets. They killed off 11/12 against Washington, including a perfect 5/5 after Washington traded for Shattenkirk. Let’s look at some of their keys to success.

Columbus was also aggressive on the walls, although they did not skate right at Backstrom the way the Islanders did. Here we see really tight pressure. When Backstrom works it up top, Seth Jones makes the read we just discussed, leaving the man in front of the net to help take away the Ovechkin one-timer. He plays the odds and it works out.

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While the Islanders were very aggressive with only their forwards, the Columbus defense was activated more. In the video above, we see the pressure in the corner. In the video below, we see two defensemen below the goal line pressuring and battling to create a turnover and clear the puck.

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We showed Toronto getting burned recently against Washington; later that game, the Leafs did try to pressure more. We can see in the video that even though the first man is pressuring well, the other three Leafs don’t rotate. This is something the Islanders and Columbus did well so as to not leave guys wide open.

Below, the Leafs have a single chaser compared to a ‘pressure PK’ and Washington works it around calmly before creating an excellent scoring chance.

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In Summary

Toronto went 7/9 on the PK against Washington this season. It’s not bad, but over a potentially long series, a sub-80% PK will be tough to win with (18 teams were over 80% this year). Backstrom and Ovechkin are the two key players and now Washington has a third weapon in Shattenkirk that they are starting to unlock, which makes their unit even more dangerous. What the Leafs can learn here is the importance of pressuring the half-walls and rotating their PK at the same time to take away lanes and openings (and I think they have the forwards to do it in Zach Hyman, Leo Komarov, Connor Brown, and Kasperi Kapanen). For the majority of the season, Toronto has primarily clogged up the shooting lanes up top and lightly pressured the half-wall at times, pushing the play down the zone. They’ll have to amp it up this series to have success here.

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