The Achilles Heel of the Capitals Power Play


Photo: Patrick Smith

The Caps are bad at defense and give up a lot of odd-man breaks. Even when they win, Washington can’t hide that flaw. One aspect of that is particularly troubling: the amount of rushes they allow on their own power play.

The Capitals man-advantage has kept them afloat all year, generating about a third of their offense. However, against the Stars their PP could barely get going. Dallas had two breakaways on Washington’s opening power play, which was quickly negated by a John Carlson slash.

“Usually odd-man rushes are our breakdowns, not necessarily great plays by them,” Carlson said after the game. “We can’t let that happen. We’re too good of players.”

So why is the league’s number one power play so bad at getting the puck out of the zone?

The Caps use a diamond-shaped 1-3-1 formulation, with only one defenseman playing in back. It’s an aggressive system, and the Capitals have struggled at times to get the puck through neutral and out of the defensive zone. When they have reached the offensive zone, an audacious move by the defenseman or by Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom along the halfboards leaves the Caps without a fallback. When somebody makes a bad pass, there’s not much to stop the puck from going the wrong way.

“You have no speed, and they’re coming at you full speed, so it’s a really difficult play there,” Eric Fehr told me, before adding that the team shouldn’t make stretch passes when they aren’t there. When they’re in the offensive zone, they should back off rather than try to force a play.

“Maybe try to regroup, pull out, and try to go back in,” Fehr said when asked for a solution. “It’s not a fun thing to do on the power play, but I think sometimes you just gotta cut your loses and take it from there.”

Karl Alzner agreed.

“You want to make the nice play to spark the team, to get a goal or to make the nice pass to break us out,” Alzner said. “Very few teams can do that; it’s about playing simple, and it’s not always fun to play that way, and we sure haven’t helped ourselves by us all being irresponsible on the ice with the puck in all three zones. We’ve got to be smarter and we’ve got to make simple plays.”

Let’s look at what happened tonight.

8:39 into the game, the Capitals earned their first power play of the night after Eric Fehr drew a holding penalty on Trevor Daley. Thirty-two error-riddle seconds later, it ended in humiliating fashion.

First, Nicklas Backstrom won the offensive zone draw. So far, so good. Alex Ovechkin skated over to the boards to corral the puck but was unable. Not so good. Then, John Carlson — the only Caps defenseman on the ice — pinched, trying to keep the puck in the zone. Bad, bad, bad. Former Caps center prospect Cody Eakin poked the puck by Carly and raced in alone on Jaroslav Halak on a breakaway. A hustling Marcus Johansson, Carlson’s cover, was caught flat-footed and could not recover. Lucky for the Caps, Eakin didn’t record a shot on goal.

On their next rush up ice, the Caps weren’t so lucky. Carlson gained the blue line and then passed to Nicklas Backstrom. As Backstrom tried to return a pass to Carlson, he telegraphed, allowing Ryan Garbutt to pick it off. Garbutt cut loose on a breakaway and eventually got hooked by Carlson. Caps power play over.

The Caps did not record a shot on that power play. They surrendered two straight prime opportunities. How does that happen?

Meanwhile, in the third period, the Caps got another man advantage and squandered it again. After Troy Brouwer missed on a shot right in front of the net, the Stars cleared. Mike Green got caught looking and got out-hustled to the puck by a speedy Ryan Garbutt. Garbutt scored on Holtby, five-hole.

The Capitals gave up three breakaways on the power play. They surrendered a shotrhanded goal once and committed two penalties.

This isn’t a question of a flawed system or poor play. It’s both. While the team has scored 64 power play goals, they’ve also given up the fifth most short-handed goals against. Sometimes it bites them. Tuesday was one of those times.

“We make [the] easiest mistakes, we turn puck over in our zone, neutral zone,” Ovechkin said. “It cost us the game.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he added.


Photo: Patrick Smith

Additional reporting and GIFs by Ian Oland.

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  • GuestZ

    Fucking pathetic effort tonight. Time for this coach and GM to get the hell out.

  • Lance Perrier

    Laying an egg on home ice, with half a dozen games left, and looking up at the wildcard…is unacceptable. Dallas has been hot lately, but the Caps didn’t even put a fight in front of the home town fans. #pathetic

  • alchemistmuffin

    That kind of response, by Oates, not good sign. I feel he is completely out of touch given the whole situation.

    He needs to go in my opinion. We do not need to wait till middle of next season. Changes needs to happen now, and that’s starts by getting a new GM that will shake the organization up, good or bad.

  • VeggieTart

    That was beyond pathetic. It was utterly painful being there and seeing the two guys who cared most were the goalies.

  • Graham Dumas

    So, a question about this: we’re by FAR not the only team that uses the 1-3-1. In fact, I think RMNB pointed out not too long ago (maybe November?) that lots of teams have gone to the same setup since witnessing its success with the Caps. Yet presumably those teams aren’t giving up the same number of rushes.

    Are those teams using more-balanced D-men at the point? Is it our passing game that’s flawed? You seem to hint at a number of factors in the piece. If I had to go with one, it’d be a messed-up passing game, but I was wondering what factor(s) you would put up-front as the root cause of this issue.


  • bbrams

    I was watching COL v. CBJ last night and the Avs run the diamond except the second unit is the reverse of the first unit (Ovi spot on the opposite side of the ice.) seems like a great idea for the future of the Caps PP

  • Graham Dumas

    That’s certainly one way to prevent the D from getting too comfortable on the PK. But doesn’t address the break-out issue, I think, as it still leaves the same type of guy on point (MG, Carly, maybe Orlov).

  • JH

    The risk is worth the reward on the PP, I would think – especially when you suck at scoring when 5 on 5. Live by the sword and all that…. What’s the ratio of PP goals scored to goals surrendered while on the PP? What does “5th most short handed goals” amount to?

  • bbrams

    It doesn’t change the breakout issue but changes the look and the way the PK had to defend

  • yv

    One of the explanation of breakdowns is Ovis monstrous productivity in PP and inability of others to shoot and score at acceptable rate. This results in slight indecision by Nicky or Carlson or Green. Those small pauses, in trying to figure out how to deliver the puck to somehow freed Ovi, give an opportunity to opponents to close distance and to knock the puck. Fast puck movement that what makes PP efficient and safe, plus Nicky should be more prolific scorer considering how much time and space he has.

  • Jon A

    Oates has lost the fans, the media, and the now the players. I think losing the respect of the players is the killer for him. It’s only going to get worse until he’s fired now. Especially if Brouwer is not practicing today. The team is falling apart and the coach is the cause.

  • Stardawg

    Its an aggressive power play. It’s gonna get burned because of it. Its the best PP in the league. I like it. Sucks when it costs you a game, but the PP has won many games for the Caps this year.