Washington Capitals’ resurgent power play keys 7-0 start


Instead of his usual spot at the point on the power play, captain Alex Ovechkin has spent the majority of the first two weeks along the boards or in the slot. The unit is clicking at a 29.6 percent rate. (Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST)
October 26, 2011

The Washington Capitals have the league’s second-most dangerous power play, converting 29.6 percent of their opportunities. The team, meantime, is off to a 7-0-0 start, the best in franchise history.

That’s not a coincidence.

The Capitals have converted eight of their 27 power plays through the season’s first seven games, including a pair in overtime, one that put them ahead in the third period and another that staked the team to a first-period lead it did not relinquish.

The unit appears to have regained the swagger it boasted during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 regular seasons, when it finished with back-to-back 25.2 percent effectiveness rates and struck fear into the hearts of opposing goaltenders. The Capitals’ current streak of five consecutive games with at least one power-play goal is the unit’s longest since March 2010.

“We’re just getting back to what we were doing,” said Coach Bruce Boudreau, the power play’s chief architect. “The last part of last year, there was a lot of panicville. . . . It’s only seven games in. We could go 0 for 20 the next few games and get back to 20th. But I think with [the players] seeing some success doing what they’re doing, they’re going, ‘Wow, let’s continue what we’re doing.’ ”

So what, exactly, are they doing differently, one season after converting only 17.5 percent of their chances (16th) in the regular season, then posting an anemic 14.3 percent in the playoffs?

Quite a bit, actually.

The most recognizable difference is having a player consistently parked at the top of the crease. In Saturday’s 7-1 stomping of visiting Detroit, for example, 6-foot-3, 213-pound Troy Brouwer obscured the sight line of Red Wings netminder Ty Conklin on both of Mike Green’s goals. Three days earlier in Philadelphia, Brouwer was in front of the Flyers’ Ilya Bryzgalov on Alex Ovechkin’s third-period tally. Against Carolina, Brooks Laich cut across Hurricanes goalie Brian Boucher’s crease a second before backhanding in a rebound.

Brouwer described crashing the net as his “sole purpose.” He also said Boudreau told him that receiving playing time on the power play is directly linked to positioning.

“It’s pretty easy,” Boudreau said. “If you want to play, you better to do what you’re supposed to.”

Boudreau has also implored his highly skilled lineup to embrace a more simple game. That means fewer attempts of long crossing passes and more shots on net instead. The idea is to reduce the number of intercepted passes while increasing sustained zone time and the probability of rebound chances.

“We were trying to be more cute last year than this year,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals’ leading scorer with two goals and eight assists. “We want two passes and a shot, two passes and a shot.”

Another change has been the placement of Ovechkin. Instead of his usual spot at the point, the captain has spent the majority of the first two weeks along the boards or in the slot, locations that not only position him closer to the net but also allow him to utilize his playmaking ability. When Ovechkin plays up front, Green and Dennis Wideman patrol the point, utilizing their defenseman’s instincts to direct long shots on net and keep the puck in the offensive zone.

After a difficult adjustment period, Ovechkin said Tuesday that he’s finally comfortable in his new role.

“We trying different things,” he said. “I’m going to be in the front, and I’m going to be in the middle of the ice, and I’m going to be on the half-board. . . . Of course, the first couple of games I feel a little bit not [on] my game. But when you get used to it and look at the video [of other players] and see how different guys play over there, you just try to do the same thing. It works.”

One of the less noticeable focal points of the Capitals’ retooled power play is quicker puck passes. This is accomplished by delivering accurate passes, preferably on the recipient’s forehand. An example was Green’s first power-play goal against the Red Wings. The Capitals made six passes in the span of 11 seconds and all but one was accepted on the forehand.

“Putting pucks on a forehand, where a guy can handle it,” winger Mike Knuble said. “Not where he’s got to turn his hands over, on his backhand, kick it out of his feet. Those are little things that maybe a fan will notice that, when things on the power play are going good, everything is tape-to-tape-to-tape, right on the forehand. Not crossing over, having to stickhandle, gather it and make a pass. That’s too slow.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the most successful power plays are those that work harder than the shorthanded side; winning races to pucks as well as battles in the corner and along the boards.

“We’re working harder,” Backstrom said bluntly.

There’s been much more of that — and a whole lot less standing around and waiting for something to happen.

“You have to score goals to score goals,” Laich said. “It’s like in baseball, when a hitter gets a hit, all of a sudden, he’s thinking about two hits or three hits. If he’s 0 for 3, he’s scrounging and scrambling just to get one hit. If the power play gets off to a good start, you start scoring more and more goals. It’s confidence and getting on a roll, and sometimes when you get on them, they are fun waves to ride.”

Although the sample size is small, and a couple of poor performances could cause the percentage to plummet, the players and coaches like what they see in the video room these days: solid execution and growing confidence.

Capitals notes: Tomas Vokoun said he will start Thursday in Edmonton. The 35-year-old goaltender has won six straight starts, putting up a 1.80 goals against average and .944 save percentage. . . .

Green missed a third straight practice with a twisted right ankle, and Boudreau said it “doesn’t look good” for the defenseman to face the Oilers.

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