Late in Wednesday’s Capitals practice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, coach Adam Oates put his team through some power play paces for the first time since the players got back on the ice together on Sunday.
Washington led the NHL with a gaudy 25.2% power play success rate in 2009-10, but the Caps’ extra-man outfit dipped to 16th (17.5%) in that department in 2010-11 and finished 18th (16.7%) in 2011-12.
Having a healthy Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom should give the Caps’ power play a boost, as should the off-season addition of center Mike Ribeiro. Oates has also introduced some new wrinkles to the way the Caps operate when they’re a man to the good, and the team hopes that the combination of talent and tweaks can bring Washington back into the top 10 in the NHL in power play prowess this season.
The most noticeable change is the way the Caps will align in the attack zone. Once the puck has entered the zone and the Caps have settled with possession, they’ll be arranged in a sort of 1-3-1 alignment, with the high man set up in a center point position.
"It turns into a 1-3-1 at some point in the power play," says Oates. "We coach every guy on his options and responsibilities. It’s no different from any other system; it’s a system with pros and cons. Sometimes it works like clockwork and sometimes it doesn’t. But at the end of the day it’s a system.
"It evolves to [1-3-1]. It doesn’t necessarily start that way. It depends on how you enter the zone. There are a lot of little subplots that happen with it. Every team has a point man, every single team. Every team has their guy and every guy has his responsibilities."
Three players are posted across the middle, just above the top of the circle along the half wall on the sides and in the high slot in the middle. The fifth attacker is down low, just above the paint.
On the Caps’ first unit, you’ll see Mike Green at center point, Alex Ovechkin along the left half wall, Troy Brouwer in the high slot and Nicklas Backstrom on the right half wall. Marcus Johansson is the man down low.
The second unit features John Carlson on top, Ovechkin, Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro from left to right across the middle and Wojtek Wolski down low. It’s likely that Brooks Laich would replace Johansson on the top unit and Johansson would bump Wolski from the second unit once Laich is healthy, but that remains to be seen.
According to Ribeiro, one important thing to note is the presence of a right-handed shot (either Brouwer or Ward) in that high slot position. The man in the middle is like a magnet; his very presence in that very dangerous spot almost always commands defensive attention. And when it does, someone else is almost certainly open somewhere.
"That’s why you need that guy in the high slot,” says Ribeiro. "He gives the other team trouble. If they cover that guy, other things behind him are open. If you don’t have those shooters behind you to shoot that puck, then it’s hard to score those goals. But now you have guys who can shoot the puck from a standstill position and hit the net without having to move too much.
"By putting that guy in the middle, it attracts people to him no matter what, just because he’s in the middle there. A lot of times [penalty-killers] will over-commit to that guy in the middle and that will open up the back. And if they try to take Ovi away, that will open up the guy in the slot."
Ribeiro has worked that right half-wall spot on the power play for several years now, but he is excited about his options on the ice here in Washington.
"Here," he says, "I think I have more shooting options than I had the last few years. That will change the dimension of your power play, when guys can score from the blueline. It’s just a matter of moving the puck and letting the puck do the work and finding those seams.
"Ovi can shoot, Greener can shoot. We have to get shots through and recover those rebounds. A lot of times once you get that first shot, the tendency of the [penalty-killing unit] is to try to retrieve that puck and most of the time the power play guys are closer to that puck, and that’s when you can get a seam from [penalty-killers] trying to chase the puck and it opens some plays up."
From his position along the right half-wall, Ribeiro (or Backstrom, whichever is on the ice at the time) has three right-handed options to feed for a shot: Ovechkin across the ice, either Brouwer or Ward in the slot, and either Green or Carlson at the point. He also has a fellow lefty down low in Johansson or Wolski.
"It’s great to have right-handers who can shoot it," says Ribeiro. "The last couple of years, I didn’t have a lot of right-handers on the power play that could shoot the puck.
"If you have a lefty [in the middle], the only play you really have is the high tip. The team will adjust with the high tip guy and take that away. He becomes just a screen in front of the net instead of a threat to shoot from right there in the middle of the slot. So by being a righty, the back forward has to respect that guy. And then by over-committing to this guy, then you open up Ovi in the back. Putting that guy in the middle attracts defenders."
The alignment is similar to what Tampa Bay operates, and Caps defenseman Karl Alzner has had plenty of experience defending against that group over the last few seasons.
"One of the obvious challenges is that guy right in the middle of the ice," says Alzner. "He is open for one-timers, quick one-timers. Usually he is a guy who can get it off pretty good. And then paying attention to him, you also have that back-door guy. In our case, that will probably be Ovi.
"You see Tampa do it as well, and they have Stamkos back there. It seems to work pretty good for them. They’re going to try to make plays really quick, so we have to have really good sticks on the PK. That’s tough when guys can get it away as quickly as they can. I’m not much of a power play specialist but I do know that it will be pretty tough to defend."
The idea is simple: work the puck around quickly and crisply, take the open shots when they present themselves and make another pass when they don’t. Minimize blocked shots and forced plays, and, as Ribeiro put it, “let the puck do the work.”
"We’ve got to move the puck and we’ve got to know what we’re doing," says Backstrom. "The key on the power play I think is to move the puck quick, get a lot of shots and have traffic in front of the net. We’ve got to make sure we shoot it at the right time and pass it at the right time."
Reading, reacting and finding the openings are the key components for success, and the Caps have two units worth of experienced power play hands at their disposal. When it works like it should, expect Ovechkin to be presented with several one-timer opportunities from that left circle, and for him to have some back-door creep-in opportunities as well.
As with anything else, it’s all about execution. Given their talent, if the Caps can execute consistently with the extra man, it’s not hard to see them climbing back into the 20 percent range in 2012-13.