WASHINGTON — When you think of the Washington Capitals’ power play the first thing that probably jumps into your mind is Alex Ovechkin casually standing on top of the left circle, waiting for somebody to lob a perfectly placed pass directly into his wheelhouse, and then him bombing a one-timer at the net. If you are a fan of the Capitals or have no rooting interest in the outcome of the game it can breathtakingly fun to watch. For everybody else there has to be a sense of inevitability to it all because you know where he is going to be, you know what is going to happen, and you know your team is probably not going to be able to stop it.
It is perhaps the most dominant play in the league, and it is a big part of what makes the Capitals power play such a valuable weapon for them. It is not the only weapon the Capitals have on the power play.
Entering Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) the Capitals power play is clicking at 29.8 percent, which is an absurdly efficient rate. Among teams that have played at least 15 games in a single postseason that is the second-highest mark in league history (up from the fifth highest a few days ago when we last looked at these stunning numbers) trailing only the 1980-81 New York Islanders.
What makes the unit so difficult to defend is that is it has so many different options that can — and will — beat you.
The Ovechkin option is the obvious one, and the one that gets most of the attention both in terms of how the unit is talked about and defended.
In the second round the Penguins tried to take that option away from the Capitals by shading a player over into Ovechkin’s office and trying to keep him from unloading his one-timer on net. In terms of shutting down Ovechkin, it kind of worked. He didn’t score a single power play goal in the series (the only series this postseason in which he has not scored a power play goal, and only the fifth playoff series in his career he did not score a power play goal) and was limited to just five total shot attempts in 20 minutes of power play time That is only 0.25 shot attempts per minute, a shockingly low rate for Ovechkin. By comparison, he attempted 27 shots on the power play in 37 minutes of power play time (0.729 shots per minute) in the first-round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and has attempted 22 shots in 20 minutes of power play time in the first six games against Tampa Bay (1.1 shot attempts per minute).
The problem the Penguins ran into: All of that focus on Ovechkin left T.J. Oshie and John Carlson (17 shot attempts in 20 minutes of power play ice time, including a massive goal in Game 5 of the series where he was able to walk down the middle of the ice wide open) alone to beat them. And they did. Even with Ovechkin being a non-factor on the power play in terms of shot attempts and goals, the Capitals power play still managed to convert on 26.6 percent of its power play opportunities in the series. The top power play unit in the NHL during the regular season (Pittsburgh) converted on 26.2 percent of its chances. So … still great. Still better than everybody else.
The problem with shading over to Ovechkin and making it a 4-on-3 everywhere else is the “everywhere else” is also filled with talented players that form a cohesive unit that is masterful in what it does. They find the open area. They find the open man. They put the puck exactly where it needs to be to allow for the best and quickest shot possible.
While the Ovechkin one-timer is the notable play, the Capitals have seemingly perfected another one-timer that takes advantage of all of the attention that goes to Ovechkin. That would be where T.J. Oshie drifts into the soft area in the middle of the penalty kill box and creates just enough space to get a shot of his own. That play has worked numerous times for the Capitals in these playoffs. So far Oshie has a team-leading five power play goals this postseason, with four of them coming from this exact location, standing directly between four opposing players.
This is T.J Oshie’s office.
(He scored a power play goal just seconds after that screen shot).
Three of them were by the one-timer from there and one was a deflection from that spot. The fifth was a rebound off of a scramble in front.
Perhaps the biggest of those goals came in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning to break what was at the time a scoreless tie in the second period. This went in the books as the game-winning goal.
After the game on Monday Oshie talked about what makes that play work and gave a lot of credit to the presence of Ovechkin.
“I think the biggest thing there is No. 8 over in his office,” said Oshie. “How teams play us all depends on where he is and how they want to play him. For me it’s just a matter of a couple of feet here and there to find that soft area, whether it’s [Nicklas Backstrom] or [Evgeny Kuznetsov] typically they are able to find a way to get that puck into the wheelhouse and it’s up to me to find the hole.”
So, in a way, Ovechkin still drives the success even if he is not the one doing the damage. This is definitely a case of making players around him better. It is still up to those players to make it work. They do exactly that, and it is what makes the Capitals’ power play almost impossible to defend. If they didn’t make it work the whole thing would fall apart and the “shadow Ovechkin” approach might actually create its desired result: Stop the power play. That is not at all what happens.
Take away Ovechkin’s office? Oshie and Carlson are going to beat you in the middle of the ice. Try to clog the middle of the ice? Ovechkin will once again be lurking above the circle with nobody around him. It is a no-win game. The only way to truly stop them is to just stay out of the penalty box.