NEWARK — For one fleeting moment, as the puck slid off John Carlson’s stick and toward a wide open Alex Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle, the humdrum atmosphere inside Prudential Center was replaced by a second’s worth of quiet anticipation.
It was exactly what the Capitals’ power play needed, with Ovechkin winding up at the spot from which he has so often scored throughout his career. Devils fans seemed to know it, as they all appeared to hold their breath before Ovechkin’s shot flew off his stick and toward the goal. But it instead found goaltender Keith Kinkaid’s left pad, leaving the Capitals’ power play the same as it was across five opportunities in an eventual 4-3 overtime loss to the Devils on Thursday: empty-handed.
“I think we just have to simplify it a little bit,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said after the loss. “Maybe get some more shots from the top, from [Carlson’s] standpoint, too. Just simplify it a little bit.”
Backstrom is on the Capitals’ first power-play unit with Ovechkin, Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. As a whole, the power play has struggled since scoring two goals on four opportunities in an overtime win over the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 7. In the past four games, the Capitals have one power-play goal in 14 opportunities, and they struggled to create five-on-four chances Thursday. Of the five failed power plays against the Devils, two came and went without the Capitals putting a shot on net.
That could partly be attributed to team-wide rust: The Capitals were coming off a five-day break with the bye week and a canceled practice Wednesday amid travel delays. But the power play was discouraging nonetheless and has a chance to right itself against the Montreal Canadiens (and a penalty kill that ranks 26th in the league) at Capital One Arena on Friday night.
“We just weren’t sharp,” Coach Barry Trotz said Thursday night. “When you have that many days off, I thought they stalled us out through the neutral zone. A couple of our decisions at the blue line weren’t great. We’ll get a chance in the next few days to work on it again, but timing was a little bit off. They did a good job. We didn’t execute, and our power play has to get going.”
The Capitals’ power play ultimately looks to work the puck to Ovechkin in the left faceoff spot, with Carlson feeding him from the right wing or Backstrom dishing to him from behind the net. But it’s not the only way the first unit scores: Oshie typically crowds the space in front of the net, Carlson can rip slap shots from the point, and Backstrom and Kuznetsov are offered space by the opposition often cheating in Ovechkin’s direction. After the loss to the Devils, members of the first and second power-play units said the Capitals could be more opportunistic, and shot-happy, when given the man advantage.
Brett Connolly, who is on the second power-play unit with a mix of players including Dmitry Orlov, Lars Eller and Matt Niskanen, noted that the Devils’ penalty kill did a good job of crowding whichever Capitals player was handling the puck. That made it hard for the power play to get set up, and it spent most of the game trying to gain a foothold in the offensive zone rather than working toward scoring.
The importance of power-play production can be illustrated by the Capitals’ three results against the Devils this season. The Capitals’ power play scored three times in a 5-2 win in October and once in another 5-2 win in at the end of December. It was then blanked in five chances Thursday, and the missed opportunities were stretched across the scoreboard at night’s end.
“I expect our power play to be in the top third of the league,” Trotz said Thursday morning, indicating his team has a bit of improving to do in that area. Heading into the game against the Canadiens, the Capitals’ power play ranks 14th in the league with a 19.1 percent conversion rate.
“We got a lot of good players that can move the puck around,” Connolly said. “They’ll got hot here soon.”
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