At the end of the first period against the Hurricanes on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals were plugging along nicely in their efforts to build on the consistency of a two-win weekend.
They were trailing, yes, but only because of a soft goal that had squeaked through the crevice between Braden Holtby’s left leg and the near post, lighting the lamp as a beacon of simple bad luck in the midst of what Coach Adam Oates called Washington’s “best first period” of the season.
Verizon Center felt lifeless, but the Capitals looked ready to rejuvenate the crowd with the equalizer. They’d be starting the second period on the power play, and would find themselves on another man advantage five minutes later.
Then Washington’s demons returned. Not the monstrous inconsistency that has plagued the Capitals at even strength all season, but a recently emerging troublemaker: a discombobulated and unproductive power play.
In those two potentially game-changing power-play chances Tuesday, Washington not only couldn’t convert, it looked lost. The Capitals garnered just one shot attempt on the second opportunity, seemingly disorganized and out of sync as errant passes or quick clears by the Hurricanes slid out of the zone, taking the fans’ energy and the players’ certainty with them.
“You want those goals,” Oates said.
Such futility was nearly unthinkable when the Capitals boasted the league’s best power-play attack in the first month of the season, converting 20 of their first 71 chances (28 percent) through 17 games. After a 1-for-5 night in Tuesday’s 4-1 defeat, the Capitals have scored on five of their last 37 chances (13.5 percent).
“I think it’s a matter of a little bit of a rut,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Teams paying attention to what we’re doing. We get chances every single game. Maybe it’s a little bit of us, we need to bear down more.”
Teams have adjusted to Oates’s power-play scheme, often sending a man to cover Alex Ovechkin at the circle and eliminating Washington’s top option.
“They’ve done that for years now,” Carlson said. “It’s one of those things, we get shut down one game and every team wants to do the same thing. We’ve got to counter it.”
Oates acknowledged that teams have responded to the Capitals’ once-prolific power play by creating new defensive schemes aimed at its strengths. With eight of Washington’s 25 power-play goals, Ovechkin and his powerful slapper from the faceoff circle has become the focus for most teams, but others have opted to clear traffic in front of the crease to allow goalies a better look at shots from around the offensive zone.
The Capitals “have so many weapons on [their power-play unit],” Hurricanes Coach Kirk Muller said after Tuesday’s game. “When you allow them time and they can make plays through the seams and everything, it’s tough on a goalie. So we wanted to keep it simplified and tight on the PK so that [goalie] Justin [Peters] knew where the shots were coming from, rather than going back and forth one side to the other.”
Whether the recent lack of power-play production is due to the typical ups and downs of a long NHL season, other teams’ adjustments, errant execution, or a combination of the three, the Capitals need to steady their power-play unit as they hit the heart of the season. Washington has relied on the power play for 32 percent of its production this season (25 of 77 total goals), most in the league behind Montreal (33 percent).
“There’s reads to be made based on [teams’ new schemes to stop the power play],” Oates said. “We try to coach them, but they don’t always make the right read. That’s our job to try to get them to figure out what the other team is showing us on a night-to-night basis.”
Even with Ovechkin and his shadow out of the play, the Capitals maintain a four-on-three advantage. Oates has said repeatedly that the solution to the slump is simple: Other players have to step up. Mike Green, last year’s league leader in goals among defensemen, did so momentarily in garbage time Tuesday, tallying a power-play goal from the slot in the third period.
The reemergence of Green as a threat from the point would take pressure off Ovechkin, and potentially create more opportunities for others on the unit, including Troy Brouwer, who hasn’t scored a power-play goal in 11 games.
Oates says part of having other people convert their power-play chances is setting them up for those chances in the first place.
“It’s reads,” Oates said. “I think it’s similar to some of the other problems that show themselves once in a while: guys are frustrated and make bad decisions.”