Washington Capitals’ power play struggles as team surges

Nearly everything is going well for the Washington Capitals right now. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games, including their last four in a row, the penalty kill hasn’t allowed a goal in almost a month, Charlie Lindgren has been rock-solid in net, and captain Alex Ovechkin, who started the year with just two goals in 12 games, has three goals in the last three games.

But one area hasn’t come together for Washington: the power play. The Capitals are in last place in the NHL with just three goals on 43 opportunities — a conversion rate of only seven percent. Their last power-play goal came against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 27. They’ve come up empty on all 23 opportunities since, including a five-minute major power play against the Vegas Golden Knights last week.

When asked about the factors contributing to the power play’s woes, Coach Spencer Carbery replied, “You got a half-hour?”

“We’re just working through it,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of things that we need to get better at, a lot of areas that we need to improve on, and a lot of it is from built-up habits. Things that have been done a certain way for so long are just challenging to break and challenging to correct. … It’s not good. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s not a lack of preparation. The work’s being put in, but we need some results.”

The list of issues with the power play is lengthy, and many of them snowball together. They’ve struggled to win faceoffs, which often results in immediately needing to break the puck out after it is cleared down the ice by the opposing penalty kill. Their offensive zone entries have also been problematic at times, and when the Capitals do enter the zone, they have difficulty setting up their structure and creating threatening sequences. If they lose the puck inside the zone, the penalty kill regularly wins the battle and sends the puck back out of the zone, starting the cycle over again.

“For me, it’s entries and puck recoveries,” Carbery said. “That’s where power plays start for me. Usually, when you’re struggling, you’re not able to enter and gain possession consistently enough. That’s when it can really spiral. You can talk all you want about what you’re doing: Shots, deliveries, how you’re getting pucks to the net, your formation, all the different stuff. But it means absolutely nothing if you can’t enter the zone and set up with possession.”

Carbery has tweaked the personnel on each power play unit in recent games in an effort to create new chemistry — and disrupt routines the Capitals have been trying to change. For years, Washington’s top power play unit has featured Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson, and though Backstrom has stepped away from the team, the rest of the unit’s entrenched patterns have proven challenging to alter.

The goal is for the power play to have options outside of Ovechkin’s one-timer in the left circle, which is typically tightly defended by the penalty kill. But creating new patterns hasn’t been seamless, and the Capitals are now struggling for confidence, too.

“We’re just searching right now for something that clicks for us,” Oshie said. “I think work ethic and simplicity is going to be the key factor to us getting out of this little rut that we’re in. Once we start getting more shot attempts, more shots on net, maybe some dirty goals [and] we start feeling good about ourselves, I think maybe those high-end plays will come a little bit more.”

According to Natural Stat Trick, Washington is 12th in the NHL in expected goals on the power play with 13.67, so the underlying numbers suggest that the Capitals are due for a few fortuitous bounces — but luck isn’t the sole reason they’ve struggled to score.

“I feel like we’ve had good chances, sometimes,” center Dylan Strome said. “But just consistently, probably not enough good chances. A lot of teams score on second and third chances, and we’re kind of just — those are getting on net and then going right down and we have to break out all over again. Kind of just kills your power play.”

Washington has been able to win games without contributions from its power play in recent weeks, but eventually, the power play will need to chip in. The slow start also means that even when the power play does get going, the conversion percentage will likely remain well below what they’re used to.

“It’s going to be tough to get that number up to 25, 30 [percent] by the end of the year,” Oshie said. “But I do think maybe from here going on, we can start getting to that 20 percent range and start helping out a little bit offensively.”

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