Five of the most gifted hockey players in the world combine to form the Washington Capitals' top power-play unit, a melding of millionaires that is almost unmatched in the sport. The unit receives the bulk of attention during many practices and often gets five or six opportunities to take the ice in games.
Yet for all of its individual brilliance, the Capitals' power-play unit is ranked 18th out of 30 teams and is in a 2-for-29 slump in the last seven games. Wednesday night the Capitals had seven power-play opportunities against Anaheim, spending 12 minutes 18 seconds on the ice -- more than 20 percent of the game -- yet barely registering a scoring chance in a 3-0 defeat. Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Bondra and Michael Nylander -- who will earn a combined $26 million this season, more than the combined payroll of three NHL teams -- were stymied by a core of hustling and largely anonymous penalty killers.
"We knew they would back four [penalty killers] across the blueline," Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "And you have to dump pucks and outwork somebody when there are four across, or you had better beat someone one-on-one, and in this day and age that's hard to do.
"We didn't outwork them for pucks in their end, we didn't use the back of the net, we didn't support and that was it. When [Anaheim got the puck] they iced it and that builds momentum there and they're hot on the penalty kill right now and our power play -- our skill guys, our go-to guys, our top-end guys -- did not want to outwork them to get loose pucks and second chances.
"And when we did it seemed like we fanned on a shot or didn't get it through. We didn't execute on the power play at all, whatsoever. I don't know that we executed once, to tell you the truth. We didn't get much of anything off that, and that was the difference in the game -- they got a goal off of [the power play] and we didn't."
Another goal here or there would have been crucial for Washington -- 19 of its 29 games have been decided by a goal or less -- and the power-play slump is partly responsible for Washington's 15 defeats (only Atlanta had more losses entering play tonight).
"I'm not saying we're struggling, but of course we didn't score and that's the bottom line," Bondra said. "If we score one on the power play [Wednesday], it's a different game. We work hard on it, we try to get better and it will get better. It's going to come. It's frustrating, but at the same time we have to shoot the puck more often and score maybe one ugly one and then things will start going well for us."
The sheer amount of practice time devoted to this nuance alone would seem to ensure better production. Part of nearly every practice -- and often more than half of any practice -- is spent working on the power play. The Capitals even do power-play drills during some of their morning skates, a time that is usually used primarily to get blood flowing and work up a light sweat.
With the NHL cracking down on obstruction-related infractions, special teams play is as important as ever. Yet the more vigilant rule enforcement has worked to Washington's detriment (its penalty killing is ranked 26th overall). The Capitals feasted on power plays during the first two weeks of the season, but the drop-off since has been troubling to players and coaches alike.
"There just wasn't anything happening" on the power play, Lang said after Wednesday's defeat. "That's the way it was and we have to regroup and come back and get some pucks to the net."
Capitals Notes: Goaltender Olaf Kolzig (pulled thigh muscle) made it through today's practice, the first time he has done so since suffering the injury last week, but he remains on the injured reserve list and cannot be activated until Saturday at the earliest. . . . The Capitals have not won in Phoenix since Dec. 7, 1996, a span of five games.