How to shut down the Caps' power play

The Washington Capitals don't score on every power play -- about one in every four chances -- but Adam Oates, their former coach who is widely considered to be a power-play guru, recently said, "You can't stop it."

It is pretty lethal, at least. From the start of the 2012-13 season through a 5-3 victory Feb. 9 over Nashville, the Capitals scored on 24.8 percent of their power-play opportunities, the best in the NHL over that span by more than three percentage points.

Part of the reason, of course, is that the prolific Alex Ovechkin usually lines up at the top of the left faceoff circle during a power play and is often set up by his teammates for a searing slap shot. Of his 173 goals in the past four seasons, 80 have come on the power play.

But that certainly is no dark secret. "I always laugh because people argue with me. Ovechkin stands still out there. You know where he is. You still can't stop him," said Oates, who was one of three interim co-coaches for the New Jersey Devils last season and is now a consultant to players.

But there are ways to stymie Washington's power play. The Devils provided five ways to slow the Capitals' power play:


Through their victory over the New York Islanders, the Capitals had scored on a league-best 23.6 percent of their power-play chances. But in the 19 games this season in which they had four or more power plays, their efficiency rate jumps to 25.3 percent. In their first meeting this season, the Devils surrendered two power-play goals on five chances in a 5-3 loss to the Capitals. About four months later, the Devils were penalized only three times in the Feb. 6 game and the Caps took one shot combined on three power plays. Devils captain Andy Greene said, "I thought we did a good job of not taking too many penalties, which is always good against them."


The playmaker of the Capitals' power play is not Ovechkin but center Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom usually mans a point in the right faceoff circle, on the other side of the ice from Ovechkin.

"[Backstrom is] one of the best passers in the world," Devils' penalty-killer Jacob Josefson said. "When he has the puck on his stick, he can look around and see where everyone else is. You always have to be aware of him on the ice."

Backstrom launches a power play with five options, Oates said, and if an opponent pressures him, he has the talent and vision to find an open teammate. Besides Ovechkin, the top power-play unit often includes defenseman John Carlson at the right point, and forwards T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov lurking inside. But the Caps can't ignite a power play as quickly if their center does not win the faceoff. In the Feb. 6 game, the Devils won two of three faceoffs after penalties to kill time and took two short-handed shots. They hounded Backstrom on his half-wall, giving him little room to operate.

"The power play runs through Backstrom. He's pretty much the quarterback back there," Greene said. "We try to put him in a spot where he's uncomfortable. He's not uncomfortable in a lot of spots, but you try to make him uncomfortable and take away passing lanes, especially not giving them clear-cut lanes where he can make the pass back-door to Oshie or to Ovechkin for that one-timer."


Any team that has more time and space on a power play will be more efficient. In their most recent game against the Capitals, the Devils were successful by making it hard for Washington to get the puck back in its zone. The Devils also pressed the Caps when the puck was in Washington's end.

"There weren't a lot of setups, which is important," Devils coach John Hynes said. "Once they get set up for a while, they have great execution. A lot of people think it's just Ovechkin on the power play, but they have guys -- Backstrom finds all four options, so that gives them time. It's a great credit to our penalty kill, and Alain [Nasreddine, the assistant coach in charge of penalty-killing] did a great job with that."

Greene said, "I thought we did a good job of pressuring them at the right time, getting pressure points, not letting them get clean looks. That's what every team tries to do, and some nights you're better at it than other nights. I thought we did a real good job of working our pressure points and zone entries."


If Backstrom provides the ignition, Ovechkin adds the horsepower with his right-handed shot. His one-timer from the left faceoff circle is one of the hardest and most accurate shots in the NHL, especially if a goaltender is screened by a Caps forward. And everyone knows the one-timer is coming. If a goaltender does stop one of Ovechkin's screamers, penalty-killers need to tangle with his teammates in front of goal so they can't whack in a rebound. Ovechkin has 38 power-play assists in the past four seasons.

"You do not let Ovechkin tee it up," Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said after the last time his team played the Capitals. "So you do a good job shadowing him and denying him the puck. But they still have three or four other pretty good players out there. You almost have to play them 4-on-3 a little bit, and I think our defensemen did a good job as far as seeing passes, blocking shots in front of the net."

Devils center Adam Henrique added: "If you just play with the puck on the half-wall, it's not in Ovechkin's hands. That's just one little part of it. You try to keep the puck on the outside and try to not let them them penetrate the middle. You want to give Schneids those outside shots, where he sees them, and you don't want to let up anything back door, which are better opportunities, too."


Ovechkin has played 39 regular-season games against the Devils in his 11-year career. In 78 games against opponents from the Metropolitan Division, he has scored 25 power-play goals. But Ovechkin has scored only two power-play goals against the Devils in his career; neither of the Caps' two power-play goals in the season opener came from Ovechkin.

"Maybe a little familiarity there helped," Schneider said. "We're used to playing against them and killing against them, and we know their tendencies. We know they're elite players and they're an elite power play. But It doesn't matter how well you know them. They can still make plays."

Henrique made it sound simpler.

"You just have to outwork them. I think that's the bottom line," he said. "When we're on the power play, sometimes, the difference is just outworking them, winning the puck battles, being the first to the puck. All those little things. Obviously, with them, you've got to be aware of Ovechkin in the back corner, but they have four other guys on the ice who make plays and can attack and score."