By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 11:50 PM
With members of the opposing Pittsburgh Penguins in the penalty box Thursday night, the Washington Capitals passed and turned, searching for space to create a play or take a shot. Although they finished the game with one power-play goal against the Penguins, the Capitals wasted five chances with the extra man, including more than two minutes on a two-man advantage that yielded just one shot on goal.
It's become a source of frustration over the past month for Washington, a team that had grown accustomed to boasting one of the top power plays in the NHL each of the past two seasons. In their last 13 games, the Capitals have gone 6 for 49 with an extra skater.
There's likely no coincidence that the funk occurred in conjunction with Washington's worst losing streak in three seasons and slumps by its primary offensive threats, who are looking to end their own droughts when the Capitals visit the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday.
"Just play simple, that's all we need," said Alex Ovechkin, who has just two power-play goals this season. "We need to create more casual moments, more casual things. Like just shoot the puck and crash the net and find the rebound. Right now we don't get the pretty goal and we still try to do some [of that] stuff."
In Thursday's 3-2 shootout loss, the Capitals went scoreless on their first five attempts against the Penguins' top-ranked penalty kill. Mike Green ended the drought when he scored in the final eight seconds of a penalty to Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, but that came after 1 minute 51 seconds of a 5-on-3 in which Washington tried to overload the offensive circuit with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Green and Brooks Laich on the ice. The group never got a shot on goal.
"The 4-on-3 and the 5-on-3, it looked like they were looking for the perfect play all the time," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "We were just trying to stay as tight as possible. You know they're gonna get some good chances, but you just want to let [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] see it and hopefully you don't change the angle too much passing through the blocks."
Pittsburgh's penalty-killing attitude is not necessarily novel, and the Capitals have experimented with different methods to impede a goaltender's view and break up the box or triangle formation that teams use to hold power plays to the perimeter of the offensive zone. As recently as this week, Washington would task two players rather than just one to stake out territory in front of the crease.
On Tuesday, the Capitals tried the power play with Ovechkin in front of the net rather than in his usual spot on the point. They've practiced with Ovechkin on the half-wall as well, but against the Penguins he was back in his usual spot trolling the blue line.
An additional volume of shots, players say, wouldn't be a bad thing to combine with the traffic in front, either. During the first half of the month, the Capitals had little trouble coming up with shots, but in the past six games they've averaged nearly 1.6 shots on each power play.
"We're not having power plays where we're getting four or five shots," Laich said. "We're having power plays where we're maybe getting one look, and that's not acceptable. Shoot the puck. Go to the net."
The message of simplicity - go to the net, and take more shots - to solve Washington's problem of an uncharacteristically dormant power play has been repeated often since the unit began malfunctioning. But Coach Bruce Boudreau said the slump also draws fuel from the Capitals stars' attempts to do too much.
"When you're struggling, you want to make the perfect play," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's easy to say, well, shoot the puck and go for tips and rebounds and that, but you're always getting the puck and you're saying: 'Oh there's a better play over there' because you're trying so hard to do the right things that you end up doing the wrong things."
Whatever the reason for its failure, Washington's power play can't get back on track soon enough.
"I think power play was our key last year," Ovechkin said. "We were first in it all year. . . . We knew if we had a chance, we would score a goal. Teams were afraid to take a penalty against us. Right now we have a [power play that doesn't] have success because we play terrible with it. We try to create some cute plays and it doesn't work."