TORONTO — On the back of the T-shirts the Washington Capitals designed for this season is a command: “Own the big moments.” Coach Barry Trotz identified one of those moments on Saturday night, when the team was down by two goals halfway through the game in Toronto and back-to-back penalties by the Maple Leafs gave the Capitals 24 seconds of five-on-three.
Washington got off two shots during the two-man advantage, both wide misses by John Carlson, and as the puck bounded out of the offensive zone on the second miss, the Capitals looked deflated.
“A big moment for us where we could’ve jumped back into that game,” Trotz said after the 4-2 loss.
The team’s once-vaunted power play, consistently among the league’s best since 2012, has struggled to capitalize on its opportunities this season, ranked 18th in the NHL. Washington’s getting the chances, but missing them too often.
“If we score that goal, maybe it will be total different game,” Alex Ovechkin said. “But we didn’t. We just have to hit the net, if we have the opportunity, me, Carly, all the guys who play out there. We know exactly what we have to do. We didn’t execute, and we missed shots.”
The power play has improved recently, but its 15.6 scoring percentage isn’t to the Capitals’ usual standards. The team scored on 21.9 percent of its power plays last year and 25.3 percent the year before that. Washington went 10 games without a five-on-four goal before scoring three in its past four games.
“It’s all about hitting the net and creating chances from that,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s not really where we want it to be, but at the same time, it’s a step in the right direction. We’ve still got to work hard and make sure we get better on it.”
That the power plays struggles have been unexpected considering there was little change to the units. To start the season, the Capitals had the same five players on the top unit as last year with the same 1-3-1 formation with which it had success for years. Maybe that lends itself to predictability, but that hasn’t hindered its success in past seasons, and Washington has had cleaner zone entries with better possession time this year, elements that typically lead to goals.
When the man-advantage faltered early in the season, Trotz cautioned against reading too much into a small sample size. But with the team a quarter of the way through the season, the low production got concerning enough that Trotz made tweaks to the power-play units before Washington played Pittsburgh on Nov. 16. He put defenseman Matt Niskanen and forward Evgeny Kuznetsov on the top unit with John Carlson and Marcus Johansson then moving to the second unit.
“I don’t know, that hasn’t really worked,” Backstrom said. “I mean, switching guys around can maybe be a little wakeup call for everybody and maybe get us going. I don’t know. We just have to work better as a five-man unit, I think.”
After Trotz moved personnel around, the power play scored at least one goal in four out of the next six games, a 22.7 scoring percentage and a step toward becoming a threat again during a crucial moment of the game.
“When our power play wasn’t really hitting, I thought we were getting the chances,” Trotz said. “We were missing the net. That puck that would come in there for a second chance, it would bounce over a stick or we’d put it back in the goalie. We just weren’t really sharp on the final execution. But our entries and our zone time were really good. Our shot attempts and our recoveries, all those were really good. But we just weren’t finding the back of the net. Sometimes, when you change a personnel here or there, it just sort of — I don’t know if it wakes the group up — it puts emphasis on it. When you do, guys seem to execute.
“They’re a good group. They’ve been a good power play for a long time, and that group hasn’t changed a lot in the last couple of years.”