With the Washington Capitals' power play mired in a 3-for-48 slump, Coach Bruce Cassidy yesterday implemented wide-ranging changes to his top units, giving several players their first serious chance to play on the man advantage.
Cassidy shifted Peter Bondra -- who led the NHL in power-play goals each of the past two seasons but is struggling this season -- and $5-million-per-season center Robert Lang to the second unit. Defenseman Ken Klee and winger Dainius Zubrus move to the first unit with regulars Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander.
The second power-play unit will consist of Bondra and defenseman Calle Johansson on the point -- Johansson has received almost no power-play time this season -- while workmanlike forwards including Jeff Halpern, Ivan Ciernik and Steve Konowalchuk will rotate with Lang.
"We're trying to emphasize different looks on both units," Cassidy said. "We've got one with a bit of grit for lack of a better term, and more net presence. We took Robert off [the top unit], who is more of a shooter and playmaker, and put Zuby on, who is more of a big body in front. We put Kenny in the mix there just to get Peter more with a shooting group [on the second unit] with Halpern or Kono or whoever in front."
Cassidy said he might occasionally return to some of his normal units during tonight's game against Atlanta but wants to experiment to simplify the style of play, create more traffic in front of the net and get more pucks through from the blueline. The Capitals blew four power-play opportunities in the first period of each of their last two games and will need better production in the final four weeks of the season with Tampa Bay pushing them for the Southeast Division title.
The power play was great for the first three weeks of the season, then dropped into a funk for much of the first half before a torrid run in January brought the unit back to the top of the NHL. Washington has scored only three power-play goals over the last 14 games, however, and Cassidy was most critical of his top unit after a listless performance in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Buffalo. Still, the urge to reunite Bondra, Lang, Jagr and Gonchar on the same unit remains.
"If I think they are all in the game or all going," Cassidy said, "then I'll go right back to them, because they are our go-to guys and I don't like to split them up. But earlier this year that's when it got going [when they were separated]. . . . For whatever reason we got out of that funk, and maybe that's what we need to get going again."
Cassidy's philosophies on the power play have not always meshed with Jagr's, who is the central figure on the top unit and handles much of the puck distribution. Jagr, who has played on the power play with Lang for years dating from their time in Pittsburgh, is more inclined to improvise around the net based on what he sees rather than use men stationed at the point or in the crease, and he believes other teams have adjusted to Washington's tendencies.
"Teams start to pressure us a lot and maybe putting two guys in front is the answer," Jagr said. "I don't think so but maybe the coach sees it differently. He is the coach and he is smart enough to know where guys should be, but I don't think that is the answer."
Cassidy used his checking line over his star players on a power play late in Tuesday's game and Halpern responded by scoring the game-winning goal through a screen. Cassidy is aiming to see more of that basic hockey, with players such as Klee and Johansson focused on getting shots on net for rebounds and scrambles.
"My job is to try to simplify things," Klee said. "When I get the puck I look to shoot. As a penalty killer I know that's what creates havoc: When guys are shooting the puck and the other team has to run around and try to find it. Obviously, guys who have a ton of skill want to make a lot of plays, whereas a player like myself looks to get it to the net and simplify things. Obviously, I want to get the puck to the guys with skill, but if there's nothing there you just have to shoot it."
Capitals Notes: Winger Kip Miller, who is out with a hand injury, did not practice yesterday and will not play tonight. Cassidy said it is possible Miller could return for Saturday's game in Boston, but that would depend on his ability to rejoin the team for practice on Friday. . . . Defenseman Jean-Francois Fortin remains on the injured reserved list with back spasms.