There will be many storylines heading into the Pens’ Second Round series against the Washington Capitals. But there is one matchup that could ultimately prove to be the difference in the series.
The Capitals power play vs. the Pens penalty kill.
Special teams are always important. But they have a heightened sense of importance when two great, evenly matched teams go head-to-head.
“It’s a big challenge, there is no question that they’re one of the top power plays in the league,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “They have a lot of threats. It’s hard to key on any one particular threat. We have some ideas on what we think we’ll try to do to negate their success. But we have a lot of respect for their power play.”
Washington boasted the NHL’s fifth best power play with a 21.9-percent conversation rate (55 for 251) in 2015-16. The Caps exploded for five man-advantage goals in their First Round series against Philadelphia, going 8-for-27 during those six games.
“They have a lot of weapons. They have a lot of options,” forward Carl Hagelin said. “It’s one of those things. You have to watch video, pay attention to detail and hopefully execute when you get out there on the PK.”
Hagelin’s sentiment of Washington’s balanced attack was shared and repeated by all of his teammates when asked about the Caps power play.
The Capitals’ balance of skill on their power play comes from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom working to the walls, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen on the points and either T.J. Oshie or Marcus Johansson working in the slot/net-front.
“They have a great puck-mover in Backstrom and everything runs through him,” said goaltender Matt Murray, who faced the Caps’ power play twice during the regular season. “(Backstrom is) a threat to shoot as well. He’s got a pretty good wrister. He’s a threat on the left side. They have a huge right shot off the right side with Ovechkin.”
While everything funnels through Backstrom, the play tends to be finished by Ovechkin. He led the NHL with 19 power-play goals on this season. In fact, Ovechkin has led the league in man-advantage goals in each of the past four seasons.
“Ovechkin can shoot the puck with the smallest of windows and score very frequently,” defenseman Ian Cole said.
Ovechkin is probably most noted for his monstrous one-timers from the left circle. He has filled many highlight reels with that swing. Stopping Ovechkin poses its own challenges.
For a goaltender facing that Ovechkin one-timer, the best attack method would be to square up as quickly as possible and then cut down the angle of the shot.
“You’d like to be a little bit more aggressive on Ovechkin if you have the chance,” Murray said. “Sometimes it’s such a bang-bang play that you don’t have a chance to gap up. If you have the extra second you want to be a bit more aggressive.”
But even playing Ovechkin aggressively can end up burning a goalie.
“He can throw it to the backdoor if you’re being too aggressive,” Murray said. “You have to be aware, but not overly aware as to play one guy and forget about the other options. It’s a balancing act.”
Another tactic is to isolate Ovechkin and eliminate him as an option.
“Some teams stand a guy right next to him to completely take him out of the play,” Cole said. “Then you’re playing a 4-on-3 for the other half of the ice. But they have personnel that can burn you at 4-on-3.”
The Pens’ PK is at its best when it is pressuring and taking away passing lanes. But with the skill on the Caps’ roster, Pittsburgh will have to be more calculated in its approach.
“The general feeling is when they have their back turned or the pucks bobbling that you want to be aggressive,” Cole said. “I’ve seen Backstrom do that purposely to have you come in, then slide it through you to the middle guy. Then it’s a 2-on-1 net-front with Oshie or Ovechkin walking down Main Street.”
But something to keep in mind is that while the Caps power play may be one of the best in the league, the Pens PK is also one of the best in the NHL. Pittsburgh finished fifth in the league with an 84.4-percent success rate.
“We have some core parts of our system that we take and you have a comfort level with the guys that you’re killing with,” veteran forward Matt Cullen said. “We’ve done a pretty decent job up until this point of killing. You lean on that a little bit, but every series and power play is a different challenge. So you have to adapt accordingly.”
It certainly is a challenge, but the Pens’ PKers are looking forward to the challenge.
“Anytime you can keep the power play off the scoreboard you really help your team a lot,” Cole said. “We give ourselves a chance to win. If you can do it against a power play as special as Washington’s, you feel really good about yourself.
“The coaches will look at some video and figure out the best way to attack Game 1 and we’ll go from there.”