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Rivalry Night Faceoff: Caps vs. Pens power plays

by Dan Rosen

To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week we are trying to determine which team has the better power play, the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals.

Body movement, puck movement and superior skill are three ingredients that make any power play successful. It's no surprise that the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have been feasting on opposing penalty-kill units all season.

"I've seen power plays with lots of good players, but they're static," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told "It's different with these two teams."

The Capitals and Penguins have built the NHL's best power plays by utilizing all or some of the aforementioned three ingredients. They each had power plays that are clicking at a 25.2-percent clip entering play Tuesday. The Penguins, who were idle Tuesday, have scored on 39 of their 155 opportunities while the Capitals were successful on 40 of their 159 chances before playing the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.

The Metropolitan Division rivals will match power play wits and skill Wednesday at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS).

"It's really hard to keep track of the top players when there is so much movement," Button added. "And they have the skill levels to where they can move the puck into good spots. It's pretty impressive. And they can attack you from multiple areas on the ice. They can attack you from the wall, the middle, below the goal line. When you've got that much to defend … you get overwhelmed."

The Penguins and Capitals attempt to overwhelm the opposing penalty-kill units in different ways. Is one way better than the other?

Here is a breakdown of the differences in their power-play systems, followed by the one that might be slightly better:



Button noted that the Penguins are effective on the power play because "what they do really well is attack the net." He wasn't just talking about having Chris Kunitz (11 power-play goals) at the front of the net, even though he is one of the best net-front power-play players in the League.

Button's point is the Penguins try to operate their power play from below the faceoff dots, funneling everything toward the net. And because they operate down low, especially with Sidney Crosby working from the half-wall to the corner, the players on the points have more space to creep closer to the net and are therefore attacking it as well.

"They're attacking the net with the idea of turning defenders," Button said. "When they are able to turn defenders that is really key. They're not trying to find the open point guy and shoot it and then go to the net. They attack it from below the dots. When you attack the net the way Pittsburgh does opponents have to collapse down. So when they collapse down that opens up more ice at the top of the circles.

"You see a lot of guys that try to play catch up the boards, up to the top, but the Penguins work it below the dots. Even when they get the puck down low below the goal line they're quickly coming back to the net."

The other notable aspect of the Penguins' power play is the body movement to match the puck movement. They will move around to create confusion among the penalty killers, leading to better opportunities.

James Neal will cut to the middle. Kunitz will move off the wall. Crosby will go to the front of the net. Kris Letang or Matt Niskanen will skate the puck deep.

For example, check out the power-play goal Neal scored against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 5. The play was created by Letang's movement.

Letang carried the puck deep into the zone as Neal moved to the point. When Letang came back up the wall, Neal cut down. Letang drew two defenders to him and quickly moved the puck to Neal for a shot from the left circle. Jets defenseman Mark Stuart was caught on a yo-yo between Neal and Kunitz, who was in front of the net. There was no right decision.

Pittsburgh also has interchangeable parts. Their power play was still at 22.2-percent efficiency (6-for-27) from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3 despite the fact that Evgeni Malkin, Letang, Neal and Paul Martin were out of the lineup for all or some of those games. The power play was strong at the start of the season even though Neal and Letang were out of the lineup with injuries.

Washington relies on its power play to win games far more than Pittsburgh does. The reason is goal differential in other areas.

Entering Tuesday the Capitals were minus-5 in 5-on-5 goals for and against and had allowed 32 power-play goals as opposed to the Penguins' 15 power-play goals-against.

Washington's power play is different than Pittsburgh's because it relies more on puck movement than body movement. That's not to say the Capitals are stationary, but they want penalty killers to chase the puck first.

The Capitals typically stay close to their regular spots, particularly Alex Ovechkin (12 power-play goals) on the left side, Mike Green or John Carlson at the right point and Nicklas Backstrom on the right-wing half-wall.

For the most part they work the power play through Backstrom, who usually is trying to find Ovechkin on the backdoor for a one-timer. The most-attempted pass on the Capitals' power play is the one between Backstrom and the player at the right point, either Green or Carlson, because the idea is to work it enough so Ovechkin can get open and they can find him with a tape-to-tape pass.

Ovechkin, though, will try to sneak behind the penalty killer closest to him if that penalty killer has his eyes on Backstrom. If the play isn't there Ovechkin will back out and regroup. He may decide to swing into the middle, which works for him because he's a right-handed shot coming off the left side, meaning he's in a shooting position.

"One of the things Adam Oates and the coaches in Washington have done is they have made Alex Ovechkin comfortable attacking," Button said. "He used to just want to post up on the dot, say, 'Pass me the puck and I'll pound it.' Now there is more movement from Alex Ovechkin. He gets multiple opportunities to get the puck and he's still Alex Ovechkin, so all he needs is one shot."

Backstrom, though, is the one who makes the power play go with his vision off the wall. He's usually able to tell when the seam pass to Ovechkin is there, or when he has to instead go up the wall to the right point or down to the goal line.

"You have to defend against him, but because Backstrom is so good with the puck he's able to read what is there," Button said. "He's like a quarterback who checks down. If something is not there he'll go to the check-down. Backstrom also threatens with his shot more."

Green's booming shot is an option for the Capitals, and Carlson's accurate shot works too. The Capitals crowd the net with big bodies such as Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Brooks Laich. Marcus Johansson is good at working the goal line, either passing the puck or quickly moving it in front of the net.

Verdict: The Penguins have this by a nose because of the various looks and interchangeable parts they have on their power play.

For as dangerous as Washington's power play is, it doesn't have the same number of options or pieces as Pittsburgh's power play. Washington's power play is built around Backstrom and Ovechkin, with Carlson or Green as a middle man; Pittsburgh's power play is built around a system that involves a lot of movement and unpredictability. The Capitals' power play, while hard to stop, can be predictable. Pittsburgh's power play is not.

The other difference is in the shorthanded goals-against. Washington had allowed five entering play Tuesday while the Penguins have given up one.


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