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Beaten foes assess power plays of Penguins, Capitals

Take it from Rangers, Flyers: Commit penalties at your own peril against Pittsburgh, Washington

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

A series being hyped as Ovechkin vs. Crosby, Part II may be decided by which superstar's team has the better special teams. 

Debating that might take longer than the arguments over who is better, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin or Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins enter the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Capitals having gone 8-for-21 on the power play (38.1 percent) and 17-for-19 on the penalty kill in their five-game first-round series against the New York Rangers. 

Pittsburgh killed 22 consecutive penalties in their last six games of the regular season.

Video: SAP Round 2 Infographics Series Preview: PIT WSH

The Capitals enter Game 1 at Verizon Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports) having gone 8-for-27 on the power play and 23-for-24 on the penalty kill in their six-game first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers. 

Washington had the NHL's fifth-best power play (21.9 percent) and second-best penalty kill (85.2 percent) in the regular season on the way to winning the Presidents' Trophy. 

The team with the better special teams in this series will have a great chance to win it, so to figure out what each power play does so well and the best way to defend it, we went to the teams that just got burned by them, the Rangers and Flyers.

Here is a breakdown:

New York talked about the need to stop Pittsburgh's power play after each game in the series. It got progressively harder for the Rangers to do it because the more the Penguins scored, the more they gained confidence and the more hesitant the Rangers penalty killers grew. 

"You look around the League, the top penalty-killing units, they have guys flying around at you, not giving you time and space," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "They made us pay for our hesitation, our lack of being on the same page."

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm2: Penguins move the puck on Kessel's PPG

Pittsburgh defeated New York with power-play goals from Evgeni Malkin up top, Patric Hornqvist in the slot, Corsby at the post and Phil Kessel off the rush. Kris Letang did a lot of the distributing. Kessel scored three goals. Crosby and Malkin each had two. 

"They scored goals in different fashions," McDonagh said. "We saw the backdoor play. We saw a goal off the rush. We saw deflection goals. You name it, they hit us with everything."

That is what makes the Penguins power play so dangerous; they have five skilled, smart players working in unison, and none of them need much time or space to get off a shot that either goes in or creates an opportunity for a deflection or second-chance opportunity.

Pittsburgh scored its eight power-play goals against New York on 22 shots for a .363 shooting percentage.

"You look at the five guys they have on the ice when their power play is out there, it's an elite group of guys," Rangers center Derek Stepan said. "On one side you have the best player in the world (Crosby), and on the other side you have Phil Kessel, and he comes off the half-wall pretty well. Then you just casually throw in 71 (Malkin) and let him kind of do whatever he wants. They're so interchangeable, they're always moving, and they're all threats when they have the puck."

Video: PIT@DET: Letang's power-play goal gives Penguins lead

Hornqvist actually might be the biggest key to the power play because of his elite skills in front of the net. He's a throwback to retired Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom in how he shields a goalie and deflects pucks with either his stick or his body. 

The Rangers could not clear Hornqvist from the front of the net. The Capitals have to start there if they want to beat the Penguins power play. But Stepan noted the problem with that.

"That's the thing too, if you take a guy to do that, now you got those four versus three, and you know they have more ice to work with," Stepan said. 

So, for the Capitals, it's a pick-your-poison power play, but it's pick your poison and pressure. The Rangers didn't have any pressure and they got burned badly. 


Washington has been running its 1-3-1 setup on the power play for years, with Ovechkin as the trigger man in the left circle, a big reason it has been the best power play in the NHL for a long time.

Video: PHI@WSH, Gm2: Ovechkin rips a one-timer by Mason

Ovechkin isn't the only option anymore.

The Capitals now have defenseman John Carlson's heavy shot from the point, with forward T.J. Oshie in the high slot and Marcus Johansson in the low slot. They're bumpers for Nicklas Backstrom, who quarterbacks the whole thing from the half wall. Oshie and Johansson are screeners and puck deflectors for the shots from Ovechkin and Carlson.

They throw out skilled players Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams on the second unit too.

"It's tough to point out one player," Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas said, "because [Ovechkin] is the shooter there, and they have Carlson, they have Backstrom, Johansson and Oshie, those are all skilled players. I can't really point a guy out that would make the power play for them."

Washington went 8-for-17 on the power play in the first three games against Philadelphia, including 5-for-9 in Game 3. They were up 3-0 in the best-of-7 series.

Video: PHI@WSH, Gm1: Carlson sneaks puck past Mason for lead

"We decided to try to have the forwards give more time to their playmakers, because you don't want your forward to go at him and get beat by an open Carlson," Flyers forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. "But somehow they were still skilled enough. We can't give so much time."

So the Flyers made an adjustment after Game 3, which enabled them to kill 10 straight Capitals power plays in the final three games. The Penguins coaching staff undoubtedly had to notice.

"It was more pressure on Backstrom," Bellemare said.

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm3: Beagle slams home Caps' fifth PPG

The extra pressure on Backstrom made Carlson and Ovechkin less effective, because Backstrom had to get the passes to them quicker and they weren't as crisp. That gave the killing forward at the top a better chance to pressure Carlson. 

"I thought the Caps had a little more trouble with that," Gudas said. "If you give them time, they're going to score, which we saw."

-- deputy managing editor Adam Kimelman contributed to this report.

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