For center Mike Ribeiro, the potency of Washington’s league-leading power play is all about options. He and fellow center Nicklas Backstrom can pass to captain Alex Ovechkin for a devastating one timer near one of the faceoff circles. They can feed the puck to wing Troy Brouwer in front of the net. Or they swing it to defenseman Mike Green for a powerful slap shot from the point.
“It makes teams vulnerable,” Ribeiro explained. “They don’t know which way to go.”
He doesn’t need to tell Washington’s first-round opponent that. On the eve of the fourth playoff series in five years between the Capitals and Rangers, New York has made keeping Washington’s power-play unit off the ice its biggest point of emphasis entering Game 1, which should create a dueling subplot throughout.
The Capitals converted at a 26.8 percent rate on the power play this year, and the league’s second-best unit (Pittsburgh) was two percentage points behind. The Rangers, meanwhile, committed the fewest penalties in the NHL, and the hope is their disciplined approach can neuter Washington’s attack.
The power play has been Washington’s one true constant during a season in which it started so poorly (2-8-1) and ended on such a hot streak (15-2-2). Along the way, the Capitals racked up 44 goals with the man advantage and generated just 63.7 percent of their goals via even-strength play. Amongst playoff teams, only Detroit generated less of its offense playing five on five this year.
“I think going into the playoffs special teams always play a big part, but playing a team that’s red hot on the power play, we know we can’t take too many penalties and we also know special teams will play a huge part,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said Monday. “It’s a lot of times also when you play five on five it’s so tight, a lot of times games are decided on the PK and power play.”
Added Rangers forward Rick Nash: “You win the special teams game, you have a good chance to win the actual games. That’s why we’ve kind of keyed on it.”
How that manifests itself beginning Thursday remains to be seen. The Rangers were 23rd in the NHL on the power play and ranked 15th on the penalty kill this season, although they did score nine of their 24 power-play goals during the month of April.
New York Coach John Tortorella spent a considerable amount of time working on the power play during Monday’s practice session, but he rarely divulges tidbits about his game plan, especially once the Stanley Cup playoffs role around. He doesn’t discuss injuries and there’s no telling how he’ll defend Alex Ovechkin this time around (some in New York believe the Rangers might break up its top defensive pairing Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh to create more balance throughout the lineup).
But Washington Coach Adam Oates credits Ovechkin’s resurgence, and the renewed confidence of players like Backstrom and Green, to the success they’ve all had on the power play this year. As Ribeiro pointed out, though, penalties often decrease in the playoffs and it adds pressure to convert the power play opportunities that are available.
It certainly has New York’s attention at this point.
“They’ve got Green back healthy and he’s a huge weapon out there,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “Their power play, the last six years the same guys seem to be on it and they know what they’re doing.”
More on Caps-Rangers: