Three years ago, when Kirk Muller was an assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens, he designed the penalty-kill system that stymied the Washington Capitals' potent power play and helped lead the Habs to a shocking upset in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Washington went 1-for-33 on the power play in that seven-game series.
Thursday night at Verizon Center, Muller, now coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, has to team up with assistant coaches John MacLean and Rod Brind'Amour in an attempt to stop Adam Oates' version of the Capitals' power play.
The Capitals have had the most dynamic power play in the NHL since the start of last season. They were a League-best 26.8 percent on the power play in 2012-13 (the best in the NHL since the Calgary Flames were better than 27 percent in 1989-90) and are a League-best 50 percent (6-for-12) through three games this season.
With a 1-3-1 setup featuring Mike Green up top, Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Nicklas Backstrom spread left to right in the middle and Mikhail Grabovski working the goal line and willing to go to the front of the net, the Capitals' top power-play unit is potent and dangerous from all positions.
Can it be stopped? Yes, at least 50 percent of the time. That's obviously not enough.
How can it be stopped on a more consistent basis? NHL.com endeavored to find out.
Here is a breakdown of what we discovered:
Stay out of the box -- The New York Rangers figured this out in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last season, when they beat Washington 1-0 in large part because the Capitals did not have a power-play opportunity.
However, the Capitals are averaging 3.45 power plays per game in 51 regular-season games under Oates. They will get chances. It's up to the penalty killers to deal with them.
Win faceoffs, kill the clock -- This is the goal for any penalty kill in order to be successful on a consistent basis. Against the Capitals, it's essential because of how dangerous they are once they're set up, with all the weapons they have.
"It starts with faceoffs," Muller told NHL.com. "If you win your draw, get it down the ice, it kills time. Then you're forechecking and trying to stop their entries. If you can kill the clock with just those things there, you're taking away their ability to set up. If they do get set up, they have the perfect type of player in each situation to make it a real spectacular power play."
Muller said Backstrom is smart enough to find the open man for one-timers. He called him the quarterback of the power play. However, he also thinks Grabovski's willingness to go to the front of the net for deflections makes Washington's power play even more dangerous than it was last season, when Mike Ribeiro worked the goal line as more of a passer than a scoring threat.
"He's quick enough to come off the goal line and beat you to the net," Muller said of Grabovski. "Then he can hit Ovechkin back door or he has Brouwer in the slot to feed him for a one-timer. They have all those options available, but the fact that Grabovski isn't afraid to get his nose dirty and jam the net makes it really difficult for the guys to stand up and take on the shots, because they'll get beat off the goal line."
Get into a diamond -- Once the Capitals do manage to set up on the power play (and they will more often than not, considering they're winning 56.5 percent of their power-play faceoffs this season after winning 51.4-percent last season), penalty-kill units should go into a diamond instead of a box, NHL Network analyst and former goalie Kevin Weekes said.
Weekes' reasoning is that the Capitals aren't stationary in their 1-3-1, so the penalty killers can't be stationary in a four-man box.
"But, there are times when you're in a diamond and you have to rotate into a box, so it can't always be a regular diamond," Weekes said. "Sometimes it has to be a rotated diamond, a diamond on an angle, depending on where they move the puck. Your rotation from a conventional diamond to a diamond on an angle to sometimes a box has to be crisp, and the only way it is crisp is by having communication."
That communication starts with the goaltender, Weekes said.
Attack aggressively -- A passive penalty kill allows Green to play well inside the blue line, allowing the Capitals' power play to move closer to the net, leading to Grade-A scoring chances. Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks. They sat back on opening night and got burned three times before coming through with a 3-on-5 kill.
The Flames tried to be aggressive, but they got beat twice once the puck went to Ovechkin. The first time was on a shot by Ovechkin, the second on a scramble in front created off a rebound of an Ovechkin shot.
Meanwhile, the Stars were aggressive and Ruff was pleased overall with how they handled the Capitals' power play, killing two of three chances. Ovechkin burned them with a quick shot from the left circle.
"Our goal was to be aggressive," Ruff said. "Aggressive up ice and aggressive in the zone to not let Backstrom stand there and make plays. Ovechkin ended up scoring from a real tough angle -- probably the only guy that can score from it -- and it was in and out of the net before you could blink, but we basically disrupted their main plays, which was our goal. For the most part, they weren't getting real good looks against us."
Muller has the same philosophy, so expect the Hurricanes to be aggressive Thursday.
"Personally, I don't think you can give them time," Muller said. "If you're in the old-fashion box style, Backstrom is going to eat you up making really good plays. I don't think you can let them set up. If you do, you have to put pressure on Backstrom quickly, because otherwise he's going to hit one of those guys who is open, and they all have the capability of scoring on you."
Weekes, though, warned that penalty killers can't be overly aggressive against the Capitals. He said they have to be able to keep their angles to avoid giving up the backdoor play to Ovechkin, who is always trying to sneak in on the weak side for a one-timer.
"I like passive-aggressive," Weekes said. "You can pressure and jump that guy if he bobbles the puck, doesn't have a clean handle on it, but it's all about reading. Maybe a guy gets a bad pass and it's a 50-50 puck and you feel you can get to it, so get to it. You pressure him in that case, but you can't just run around saying, 'Pressure, pressure.' If one guy pressures, it's a little bit of a risky play, so now what, you're going to follow up high risk with more high risk? It might not make sense."
Cut off passing lanes -- Stick work combined with the occasional attack can take away options for the Capitals' power play.
If the defenseman guarding Grabovski, who is typically working the goal line to the right of the cage, puts his stick in the lane to his left, it's going to force Grabovski to move another step or two toward the corner if he wants more room to make a pass to Brouwer in the slot or Ovechkin in the far circle. The closer Grabovski is to the corner, the longer the pass becomes and the easier it is to defend.
If Grabovski can't make the pass, he could choose to take the puck to the net, rim it around the boards to the weak side or go back up the wall to Backstrom.
If he takes it to the net, the defenseman should be able to get in position to cut him off. If he goes to the weak side, Ovechkin wouldn't be receiving the puck in a shooting position. If he goes up the wall to Backstrom, it could reopen options, but they can be limited if the forward guarding Backstrom puts his stick down to his left and the weak-side defenseman cuts off Brouwer in the slot.
If Backstrom wants to get the puck down low, Grabovski would have to move closer to the corner to receive it in order to avoid hitting the defensive stick in the lane. Backstrom could choose to go through the seam to Ovechkin, but that pass can be cut off by the weak-side forward if he has his stick in the lane, too.
If that happens, Backstrom has to consider going back to Green, but that means the Capitals have to recoil the power play the other way, taking time off the clock.
"At least the stick is there to deter the guy from making the pass or to make him think about it," Weekes said. "You want to try to make them as uncomfortable as possible, and you want to give them something to think about."
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