COLUMBUS, Ohio — For two years, the Washington Capitals’ power play was one of the most dominant in the NHL. Then last season, they found themselves with a special-teams unit drastically lacking in effectiveness.
With a fresh start and clear outlook in training camp, though, Coach Bruce Boudreau and the Capitals have set their sights on reinvigorating the man advantage and making it the intimidating scoring machine it once was. Given that most of the key players who fueled the power play during the height of its success are still around, there’s optimism in the dressing room that the unit’s course can be corrected.
“It’s not acceptable for us not to be in the top third, minimum, in the league,” winger Mike Knuble said. “Because come crunch time in the playoffs, you don’t want to be squeezing your stick, hoping it works. You gotta know it’s going to work.”
In 2010-11, the Capitals’ power play dropped to an unreliable 17.5 percent conversion rate (16th in the league) from the success of the previous two years, when it hummed at a 25.2 percent clip. Washington only scored 46 goals (22nd) with the extra attacker last year, 33 fewer than in 2009-10 and 39 down from 2008-09.
Granted, it was a slide that occurred as each of Washington’s primary offensive threats, from captain Alex Ovechkin to teammates Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, saw his offensive output drop. But as the power play sputtered, the Capitals fell into bad habits by becoming stationary, trying to force the perfect play rather than using the play that was available.
Earlier this week during practices at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, if the group running the power play drill stalled, Boudreau stopped the session.
“I think we were guilty of making bad decisions with the puck, and that’s everybody, myself included,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We have to be smarter with the puck, take what’s given to us. Teams really scout our power play and they take it upon themselves as a good challenge to shut an Alex Ovechkin, a Mike Green, a Nicklas Backstrom down. We have to take pride in outworking their penalty kill.”
Simplicity is the mantra of a well-operating power play — shoot, look for rebounds, crash the net — but equally important is work ethic. Movement and rotation among players creates more options for the Capitals’ offensively gifted lineup.
One of the ways the Capitals hope to add more choices for players on the power play is by moving Ovechkin to the half-board rather than his usual spot on the point. With a glut of offensively inclined defensemen capable of playing the point — Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik — positioning Ovechkin along the wall allows the Capitals to make the most of their personnel and gives the two-time MVP greater flexibility as well. It should allow Ovechkin to control the puck more and have more scoring chances than simply a one-timer blast from the blue line, while making it more difficult for opposing penalty kills to cut him off from the rest of the power play.
“We just wanted to get him in position where he can score, regularly,” assistant coach Dean Evason said. “On the point he can come down that back door, but now we put him in a spot where he can get some rebounds, he can get some better looks in the slot as opposed to just the ones on the top and at the back door because every team knew he was coming there.”
While Ovechkin, who scored a career-low seven power-play goals last year, may still run the point on occasion — Boudreau mentioned five-on-threes specifically — the left wing sounded excited about his new spot earlier this week.
“It’s something that I play like five years on the point,” Ovechkin said. “Right now [playing the half-board is] something probably new for me, but again it’s good because I don’t wanna be like the guy who only stay on the point and wait for one-timer or find that space to empty net. It’s challenging for me again, and I like the challenge.”
Capitals notes: The Capitals fell, 4-3 in overtime, to the Blue Jackets in an exhibition game Wednesday night. Most of Washington’s starters sat out the contest. Jeff Halpern, Andrew Carroll and Roman Hamrlik tallied goals for Washington, including a pair in the final 2 minutes 26 seconds of regulation to send the contest to overtime. . . .
Washington cut 13 more players from its training camp roster Wednesday, including many who will compete for a spot with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears. Those cut were forwards Francois Bouchard, David de Kastrozza, Stanislav Galiev, Kyle Greentree, Boyd Kane, Maxime Lacroix, Graham Mink, Garrett Mitchell and Danick Paquette; and defensemen Paul Baier, Zach Miskovic, Phil Oreskovic and Dustin Stevenson.