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Capitals’ power play has yet to hit its stride

Despite talent like Nicklas Backstrom quarterbacking the unit, the Capitals’ power play has been lackluster. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
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NEW YORK — Considering the talent on the power play, the league’s most lethal shot and two elite passers, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz knows his group has underperformed this season. He expects it to be ranked in the top 10, but it has fallen to 18th with an 18.8 percentage. When Washington was piling up wins earlier this month, the man-advantage’s slump didn’t matter as much as it does now, when the team is in a three-game losing streak and hasn’t scored in 145-plus minutes.

Hot streaks and droughts are expected for a power play during a season, but the Capitals’ 1-for-22 stretch over the past nine games highlights how it has surprisingly struggled all season, especially compared to Washington’s standards. A top-five power play has been a staple even before Trotz’s arrival, but even in just his three-plus-season tenure, the Capitals have scored on 23.4 percent of their man advantages, best in the league without and not very close.

But with it still struggling 38 games into this season, Trotz is mulling changes.

“It’s been pretty standard, and it’s been pretty successful, but we may try to put a couple more wrinkles in here,” he said Wednesday. “We just haven’t been hitting as much on it. … We can execute better. We move it around pretty well, and we’ve got some dynamic people, but we’re handcuffing certain players. We’re getting the passes over to them, and it’s in a bad spot.”

Washington’s power play has been a predictable monster. There’s Alex Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle, firing one-timers. T.J. Oshie is almost just as dangerous shooting from the slot. John Carlson is at the point, often shooting from there with Oshie serving as a net-front presence. Nicklas Backstrom quarterbacks the unit from the half-wall, though Evgeny Kuznetsov’s promotion to the top group has allowed him and Backstrom to occasionally switch roles, an added element of movement for a group that’s known for being stagnant in a 1-3-1 formation.

Though the power play lost forward Marcus Johansson, traded away in the offseason, Kuznetsov is arguably an upgrade at the goal line and on zone entries. The Capitals rank 29th in high-danger chances per 60 minutes (16.05), according to Natural Stat Trick. Last season, Washington was 20th with 18.61.

“I think we don’t execute,” Ovechkin said. “We have to play simple. That’s the key for us. We don’t move the puck well. We know we’re better than that. We just have to realize what we have to do out there and start from basics and play the right way.”

Trotz said he’s unlikely to make any personnel changes to the top unit, though the second group could see some. Washington’s second power play is typically on the ice for less than a minute per man-advantage; the Capitals have the third line (center Lars Eller and wings Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly) out there with the top defense pair (Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen), making it an easy transition back to even strength when the power play expires. On Thursday night, the Capitals host the Bruins, who have the fifth-best penalty kill (84.1 percent).

“It’s easy to say it’s this or that, but at the end of the day, it’s just getting that puck in the net,” Carlson said. “Sometimes you go through droughts like this. There are games that they’re deserved and games that they’re not. You can’t overreact and try to throw out what’s made us so good. You’ve just got to stick to what’s made you made you successful since I’ve been here.”

Stephenson bit by the flu bug

It’s unclear whether the Capitals will have Chandler Stephenson back in the lineup Thursday night. Trotz said before Wednesday’s game in New York that Stephenson caught the flu over the Christmas break. If healthy, he’d likely play on the fourth line in place of Alex Chiasson or Devante Smith-Pelly.

“Guys have been fighting that off a bit in our room for the last little while,” Trotz said Wednesday. “We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”

Here’s a guess at how Washington’s lineup will look against Boston:

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Devante Smith-Pelly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Chandler Stephenson (ill), Nathan Walker

Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Scratched: Taylor Chorney

Braden Holtby (starter)
Philipp Grubauer