It was Jan. 16, and the Washington Capitals were in Buffalo to take on the Sabres. The Capitals power play had once again been among the best in the league, and was 6 for its last 19 opportunities. The additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams had provided their units with the necessary goal-scoring chops to not only survive, but even thrive in a world where no one is surprised by the left-circle Ovechkin one-timer any longer.
But on that night, the Sabres shut down the Capitals power play. Through a combination of consistent pressure and great goaltending, the home team flummoxed them in a way that no team to that point — a full three months into the season — had managed to.
Two nights ago, and being honest, two nights before that, and two nights before that, the Philadelphia Flyers special teams were dominated by the Capitals. In the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center, questions are being asked.
What went wrong? How did a team that had the superior numbers the past quarter of the season fall so flat?
VERY tough to pick against the Caps, not sure if I will, but some food for thought… pic.twitter.com/bLepzu7kgz
— Arik Parnass (@ArikParnass) April 11, 2016
Now let’s return to Buffalo in January and take a look at just what went down. We can then compare the Sabres’ success to the Flyers’ lack thereof, and see which areas of strategy or execution don’t line up.
It was clear right away that the Sabres knew what the Capitals liked to do on entries.
Pressuring the puck carrier early in the process meant forcing the Capitals out of their comfort zone. While occasionally, that may mean exposing yourself to a rush chance, it’s probably preferable than the slow death of a well set up power play. Plus, it gives them the the upside of a potential kill and the momentum that comes with successful pressure.
Going into a playoff series, a video coach or advance scout will highlight features like a power play entry scheme, so there is no doubt the Flyers were aware that the Capitals’ primary read on their Single Swing entry is the middle-swing man (Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov).
Watch how the high forward on the Flyers tracks Kuznetsov all the way back here, forcing a pass to Ovechkin, a less ideal entry target for the Caps.
The Flyers, however, generally didn’t pressure the puck carrier himself, allowing time for John Carlson to make the best available pass. With a team as talented as the Capitals, covering one or two options isn’t going to be enough to shut down the unit. This will be a running theme.
Back in January, when the Capitals did get set up, the Sabres responded in a wedge-plus-one formation, which involves the two defensemen in front of the net, one forward in the slot, and the other as a rover, chasing the puck carrier.
The strategy was effective because the rover was aggressive, used an active stick and blocked off the Capitals’ most frequent passing lane, right half-wall to point. Without that lane open, and with a solid defensive presence in the slot, the power play’s options became far more limited.
The Flyers in these playoffs have also set up in a wedge-plus-one, which has looked something like this.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is supposed to be the energizer bunny in a conventional wedge-plus-one: following the puck around, disrupting passing lanes and forcing quick decisions.
Instead, he’s in no-man’s land. The slot-man is defending the passing lane to Ovechkin, but nobody is particularly close to T.J. Oshie, who may in fact be the biggest threat. This picture gives a good indication of where things went wrong.
In this particular screenshot, none of the Flyers players are preventing a passing lane except for the one to Ovechkin. Here’s another shot from only seconds later.
Look at the massive amount of space on the left of the image, with no Flyers players above the faceoff circles. Carlson steps up and hammers a goal with the penalty killers doing little more than screening their own goalie.
Here’s another issue. If you’re going to set up in a wedge-plus-one, you had better be sure that the slot is sealed off. There’s no excuse for a team to make full cross-ice passes against you. But here’s the problem with a passive approach. You are allowing very talented players the time and space to find miniscule passing lanes.
If they exist (and after enough time they will), a player like Backstrom will find them.
Here is Alex Ovechkin’s power play goal from Game 3.
Just kidding. That was a goal from three weeks ago, Mar. 30, when the Capitals visited Philadelphia.
Note the similarities though, as Washington’s power play quarterback finds a fairly easy lane as the top penalty killing forward retreats rather than pressures, and there is nobody left to cover the passing lane.
So what can the Flyers do differently in Game 4?
A passive strategy is reliant on lane coverage that it has become clear the team’s penalty killers — especially without Sean Couturier — aren’t able to deliver. The alternative, and possibly the preferable approach with any group of players, is an aggressive approach.
The Flyers should be badgering John Carlson when he takes the puck behind his own net, not allowing an easy lane up the ice. Considering their talent level, the opposition will likely get into the zone pretty consistently regardless, but at least with pressure you don’t allow the Capitals to dictate the play. Also, you may give yourself more opportunities to steal the puck prior to them getting set up.
Once they do get into formation, guarding the passing lane to the point with an active rover who pursues the puck deep and presses the puck carrier will at least force quicker, and maybe less accurate, passing decisions.
At best, those could result in turnovers. At worst, well, the Capitals are already 7-for-11 on the power play the past two games, so we’ll appreciate the effort.