During the “Rock the Red” era, one of the Capitals’ strongest assets has always been their powerplay. Since 2007-08 the Caps have had the highest overall powerplay efficiency of any team in the league, at 22.1% (especially impressive when you consider that includes the Oates-Hunter years). While they certainly aren’t quite as utterly dominant as they once were, the Caps PP is still pretty reliably one of the best in the league.
Which makes this tweet from JJ Regan all the more disturbing:
And honestly, it’s worse than it sounds. In that time the Caps have given up 3 shorthanded goals (including Wednesday night’s game winner). They’re on pace for one of their worst seasons in recent memory in that regard.
The abysmal powerplay performance came to a peak on Wednesday night, when the Caps had FIVE different opportunities, all completely uninterrupted by other penalties, and failed to score on a single one. When bad special teams completely swings the outcome of a game, it deserves an explanation.
So what gives? Why is one of the league’s premier powerplays playing more like a penalty kill? And perhaps, more importantly, how are they going to fix it?
I want to preface this by saying I’ve never really been a big believer in faceoffs, as a statistic, and especially as a team stat. The majority of the time, they are pretty much just a coin flip, and there is no real correlation between faceoff wins, and winning a game.
That being said, there are most definitely certain situations where individual faceoffs can have a huge impact on the outcome of a game, and to my mind, there is none more important than the first faceoff of a powerplay.
The Caps are dead last in the league in this area over this stretch, winning just 48% of faceoffs on the powerplay. The result? A lot of pucks being cleared down the ice in the first ten seconds, setting a bad tone for the next 2 minutes, and wasting the first 15 to 30 precious seconds.
Bad Zone Entries
I’m not going to go very in depth on this, since it’s been covered a lot, but the watching the Caps in the neutral zone has been pretty brutal. There’s no real way to measure this statistically, but based on my own eye test, as well as looking at analysis from people who know more about this stuff than I do (like Todd Reirden himself), messy zone entries have been a serious problem.
I swear to you though, if I see one more “slingshot” when there is literally an opposing penalty killer in between Carlson and the guy passing it to him, I’m going to scream.
When everything is working properly, the Caps are somewhat unconventional in their approach to the powerplay, in that they are unafraid to shoot from the perimeter (if you don’t believe me, Ovechkin would like to see you in his office). They are one of the few teams that score from these outside areas as much as they do from close in, which you can see on the graph below, where each dot represents a different franchise.
For those of you who are interested, the other three outliers near the Caps are the Canadiens, Kings, and Jets.
During this rough stretch for the Caps powerplay, the inside scoring has actually stayed pretty close to normal, albeit with a slight dip. Those “low danger” chances though? The goals from outside the slot that have been a staple of the Caps powerplay? Virtually non-existent. And indeed, in that time frame our two biggest “outside shooters” (Ovechkin and Carlson) have a combined 2.9% shooting percent.
There are a few sources of trouble that are causing this in my opinion. First and foremost is that passing just hasn’t been very crisp lately. Sometimes this is because they weren’t set right, because of a bad zone entry, and sometimes it’s just because of guys not paying close attention. Secondly, I think that Carlson and Ovi are both getting into their own heads. Carlson has only taken 7 powerplay shots since December 1st, below his usual rate. Ovi, on the other hand, is still shooting a lot, but has had several key misses on open shots recently. These kinds of things are usually a sign of overthinking, at least when they happen repeatedly.
So How Do They Fix it?
Some of these things are just a rhythm issue, and the Caps are just clearly not in one. However, in the past, when these powerplay issues have flared up, something we’ve seen work has been swapping Carlson and Ovi about 45 seconds into the man advantage. The change is just big enough that it can freeze up the penalty killers for just long enough to let something dumb slip through. I suspect that if things continue like this, we may start to see a bit more of Ovi on the right side than we may be comfortable with, but I think it will really bring the mojo back.
Another option, (albeit unlikely) would be a temporary change of personnel on the top powerplay unit. Personally, I’d be excited to see Vrana get some time. All 19 of his goals have come at even strength, so it could be fun to watch him run around with the big boys.
However they go about making it happen, what matters most is stringing together a couple of solid games for this powerplay unit. All it takes is an ugly goal or two to rebuild the kind of confidence that brings with it clean entries, crisp passes, and on-target shots.