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Caps Hoping to Restore Power

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
The offseason additions of Alexander Semin, Richard Zednik and Brian Pothier were supposed to revive what had been a moribund Washington Capitals power play last season. Four games into the season, the power play is still struggling. What’s worse is that with a couple well-timed power play strikes, the Caps might be 3-1 right now instead of 1-1-2.

Washington has scored at least a power play goal in three straight games, and has picked up at least one standings point in each of those three games. But a shootout loss at Minnesota on Oct. 12 and an overtime setback to Atlanta on Oct. 14 both could have ended in regulation Washington wins with a bit more precision and success on the power play.

The Caps had three power play chances totaling 5:50 during a span of just 6:18 in the second half of the second period of the Minnesota game, a contest that was tied 2-2 at the time. Washington failed to convert, firing four shots on goal, having four shots blocked, and missing the net altogether with three other attempts. A goal or two there could have tilted the balance of a close road game and given the Caps the win.

Back at home against a weary and demoralized Atlanta team two nights later, the Caps converted their first opportunity of the night when Jamie Heward fired home a perfect feed from Semin on the back-door play. But the Caps went 0-for-8 on the power play the rest of the night, including a 5-on-3 opportunity that lasted 1:37. Washington squandered five power play chances in the second period alone, and ultimately, a chance to put away a Southeast Division rival, and the team atop the standings in that division.

After that game, Caps coach Glen Hanlon was asked if there was anything he could put his finger on that was wrong with the power play.

“Puck pursuit, ganging up on pucks, coming back as a group, breaking out five, shooting when the opportunity is there and passing when you don’t have a shooting lane, battles in front of the net. How’s that? It pretty much says it all doesn’t it?”

It does.

Zednik has been silent on the scoresheet to date, both on the power play and at even strength. Semin has two of the team’s four power play goals and leads all Caps with three power play points. Pothier has a pair of assists with the extra man, as does center Kris Beech, who spent most of last season playing in the AHL.

The Caps have enough talent on their two power play units that they should have taken advantage of more than four of their 31 power play chances to date this season. Washington has converted a mere 12.9% of its power play chances in the first four games, ranking 21st in the NHL in that department. That rate is even lower than the 14.7% the team converted last season, when it finished 26th in the league.

Last year’s power play unit posted the worst success rate by any Washington team since 1977-78. Even when the Caps stumbled through a 59-point season in 2003-04, Washington featured the league’s sixth ranked power play, a unit that converted 19.2% of its extra-man chances.

alt “The power play is a thing where you obviously have to work hard, but you’ve got to recognize and not force things,” assesses Dainius Zubrus, one of the longest tenured Capitals. “Once we settle down and get in our spots, make your passes, quick passes, move around and get the quality shots. Most teams nowadays, they force. They’re not passive. Whenever their back is to the play and the puck is on the boards, they’re pressuring you. It’s not easy to set up. But once we do set up, we’ve got to settle down a little bit. Obviously, recovering pucks [is important]. We have to recover so many pucks because we’re always on the boards and not making those really good plays.”

Through four games, it’s easy to see what Zubrus is saying about not forcing things. Washington’s 31 power play chances have produced a total of 40 shots on goal. Nearly as many attempted shots never found their mark; eight missed the net altogether and a staggering total of 29 were blocked en route. So while Washington actually launched 77 shots in those 31 power play tries, only 40 were on target and only four found their mark. Forced shots and forced passes are where scoring chances go to die.

“We don’t really have an identity as a power play,” observed Pothier after Saturday night’s loss to Atlanta. “One power play we get shots from the point, another power play we’re cycling down low and trying to play one-on-one hockey and not really being productive. I think we have to discover what is going to be successful for us, and I’m hoping that we realize that pretty quick.”

Hanlon has tweaked his power play units a bit. After installing Zubrus as a point man during preseason, he has gone back to having natural defensemen (Pothier, Heward, Mike Green and Ben Clymer) on the point when the Caps have the extra man. At one point, Hanlon had Semin and Alex Ovechkin together on the team’s top unit, but he recently split them up.

“We had Ovy and Sasha together on that right side, and it ended up being a bit too much of the same thing,” says Hanlon. “They both wanted to do the same thing in the same spot; that’s why we separated them up. They were both kind of in the corner, trying to rotate, sort of cycling and interchanging without any penetration so that’s why we broke them up. You need movement on the power play.”

Sometimes the Caps struggle to get the puck into the zone, and other times they can get it in but can’t seem to get set up. Still other times they will set up and get the puck moving, only to see a low-percentage shot bounce off a pair of opposing shin pads and dribble harmlessly back into the neutral zone.

One area where the Caps have done well is on face-offs. Through the first four games of the season, Washington is 23-16 (59%) in power play draws in the offensive zone. The Caps are 1-2 (33.3%) in defensive zone draws and 10-9 (52.6%) in neutral zone face-offs while on the power play.

“Face-offs are huge,” says Zubrus. “A face-off in their end is almost a guaranteed setup. You’re going to get a shot on net or a scoring chance if you just win the face-off. The last couple of games, I’ve been doing better. That’s my responsibility. I’ve got to do a better job than that.”

Zubrus has done better in the circle. After winning just two of nine offensive zone draws in the first two games of the season, he has lost only two of nine such face-offs in the last two games, putting him squarely at 50% in offensive zone power play draws. Beech has been the Capitals’ best in that department, winning 13 of 19 (68.4%) offensive zone power play face-offs in the season’s first four games.

“I think it’s going to take a while to discover what we’re good at,” said Pothier. “I think we just need to realize that we can’t play one-on-one hockey on the power play. We need to get shots through, get rebounds and be a collective five-man unit out there instead of one or two guys trying to do all the magic. But we’re working and we’re figuring it out.”

After Monday’s practice, Hanlon reiterated what his power play units need to do to be successful.

“We’ve got to get on pucks,” he began, “we’ve got to shoot pucks, we’ve got to establish a point shot and have people in front of the net. And once that’s established, then you can start to work your plays and your give-and-goes and things like that. To me, it’s really important to establish a high point shot.”

While Zubrus admits the team has underachieved on the power play to date, he also preaches patience.
“We haven’t done that well, but we have the people to do it,” says Zubrus. “Stay with it. It’s easy to get frustrated, but you’ve got to throw that aside. The season is too long to be frustrated. We’ve just got to work at it.”

Notes: A brief scrap broke out late in Monday’s practice. Defenseman Ben Clymer and forward Rico Fata were the combatants, but the two were separated by teammates before any significant punches could be thrown.

“We enjoy the competition,” said Hanlon, when asked about the skirmish later. “It’s the great thing about our game. You’ve got two young guys competing and in the next minute they’ll come together and shake hands and move on. It happens every year and it’ll happen again before this season is over. Today was a really hard practice in terms of skating and things, and when you get tired, you get cranky. It’s human nature.”

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