The Capitals coughed up a two-goal lead in the final 3 minutes 26 of regulation Saturday night and saw what looked to be a positive start to this back-to-back weekend transform into a 4-3 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. Frequent penalties made the contest more about special teams execution and sudden momentum swings than any sustained presence by either team.
Five thoughts on the Capitals’ loss in the desert.
1. About the power play. Washington boasts the league’s most intimidating power play with an impressive 28.2 percent success rate but for some reason that efficiency doesn’t translate to other situations on the man advantage. All 20 of Washington’s power-play goals this season have come at five-on-four, as opposed to five-on-three or four-on-three.
The Capitals have no goals to show for four opportunities at five-on-three (4:50 total time) and five at four-on-three (6:30). It’s counterintuitive considering how methodical and almost mechanical the team’s standard power play functions. It was especially costly Saturday, when Washington failed to convert on a two-man advantage in the third and a full power play in overtime.
Part of the reason the Capitals have struggled in those scenarios may be because of the different reads and options they present combined with the limited number of repetitions players see in those situations.
“We just have good looks five-on-four,” Troy Brouwer said. “Five-on-three, four-on-three, it’s something that we don’t practice a ton. We should be able to manufacture something a little bit better look. I don’t think we had a very quality look on the four-on-three and in overtime you’ve got to have at least some pressure toward the net.”
Said defenseman John Carlson: “Four-on-three is actually pretty hard because you don’t have that middle guy presence all the time. It’s easier to set up five-on-four but we’ve got to do a better job when it’s crunch time like that and we need to capitalize.”
Karl Alzner doesn’t see time on the power play but offered a penalty-killer’s view of the situation and concurred with Carlson that removing the player in the slot, which happens during four-on-four play in overtime, makes it easier to take away shooting lanes.
2. Power-play adjustments. While on the topic of the power play, the Capitals were forced to change their initial approach when Phoenix made it clear it would shadow Alex Ovechkin any time the leading goal-scorer ventured low in the faceoff circle. If he wanted to shoot from up high, the Coyotes would let him. But each time Ovechkin drifted low in the zone either Antoine Vermette or Jeff Halpern was there for special one-on-one coverage.
That seems to be one of the top approaches for teams in trying to contain the Capitals’ power play – the Colorado Avalanche contained Ovechkin successfully by shadowing him when the teams met on Oct. 12 – as opponents look to make the rest of the lineup beat them rather than the reigning Hart Trophy winner.
Coach Adam Oates is often asked how to combat such efforts and his answer remains consistent and straightforward: The other four players on the ice must adapt and make the correct reads to take advantage of the attention on Ovechkin.
Washington’s changes were evident on their third power play of the game when Carlson scored in the second period. Marcus Johansson held the puck for what seemed like eons on the half wall, moving back and forth and forcing the Coyotes’ penalty killers to decide where to commit. With Halpern in no man’s land between taking away Ovechkin or moving up to challenge the threat at the point, Johansson fed Carlson for a booming shot. That play doesn’t happen if the Capitals don’t make the decisions to threaten a pass to Ovechkin but have the wherewithal to use the star right wing as a decoy.
3. Too many penalties. Saturday’s contest quickly became one defined by special teams. The Capitals entered with the top penalty kill in the league, but saw it drop to second after going 4 for 6 against Phoenix.
Part of what helped their standing was a string of seven consecutive games in which they didn’t have to kill more than three penalties. But the Capitals have now faced five or more penalty kills in five of their past six games. The more penalties a unit has to thwart, the more likely it will give up a goal.
Against the Coyotes, Washington’s penalty kill handled a daunting stretch of 6:08 short-handed when Steve Oleksy (trip), Brouwer (delay of game and unsportsmanlike conduct), the bench (too many men) and Nicklas Backstrom (hook) were all whistled for infractions in just more than five minutes. The Capitals fended off Phoenix and escaped from that predicament without allowing a goal, but in the process had taxed the penalty killers.
“We didn’t help ourselves out in the second period,” Brouwer said. “Guys did a great job killing the penalties but we kept Nicky and Ovi off the ice for far too long in that second period when we’re trying to keep pucks out of our own net.”
When rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt fired the puck over the glass with 2:01 remaining in regulation, it was one penalty too many for the kill to handle.
“Too many penalties just in general. You know it’s going to bite you at some point and it did,” Oates said. “Takes the wind out of your sails and tough break for Nate, put it in the stands. He had a little room but that’s probably a product of the course of the game. “
4. Faceoff violation. In that pileup of penalties in the second period, Brouwer was whistled for playing the puck with his hand off the faceoff and received a minor penalty for delay of game. Replay showed he didn’t touch the puck, though, which explains why the veteran winger was so animated when voicing his displeasure to the referee. His complaints landed him a second minor, this time for unsportsmanlike conduct.
It was a bad break for the Capitals at the time and Brouwer was frustrated but didn’t cause any harm.
“That’s why I was so upset because I didn’t think I touched the puck with my hand,” Brouwer said. “But when you looked up at the Jumbotron at the replay it could be mistaken, absolutely. The ref who called it is the back ref, he’s calling what he sees and the guys killed it off so it was all right.”
5. Traffic in front. The Coyotes didn’t make things easy on Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 32 saves in 65 minutes of play before allowing goals to Vermette and Mikkel Boedker in the shootout. Phoenix consistently had one forward planted at the top of the crease, and Martin Hanzal was particularly effective in that spot on the power play helping to create two goals.
“They had a lot of traffic, big bodies,” Neuvirth said. “I had a really tough time to see the puck tonight and I battled through. A few times I didn’t see and the puck just hit me.”
On the Coyotes’ first goal Hanzal was cemented in front and tangled up with Alzner when Keith Yandle fired a shot from the point. Neuvirth couldn’t smother the puck and the rebound popped out to Doan, who scored his first goal of the night. Hanzal was in front of Neuvirth again late in regulation when Doan knotted the contest at 3.