How the Capitals Power Play Befuddled the Columbus Blue Jackets


Last week the Columbus Blue Jackets visited the nation's capital (Edit: game was in Columbus, so no I don't believe they did) to take on the first place Washington Capitals. John Tortorella and his crew had the unenviable task of trying to shut down a Capitals power play that, well, they're okay. While it seems nonsensical, I don't get the impression that coaches spend that much time on special teams, whether in terms of practice or simply game planning. For the first time, NHL coaches and online analytics folk have something in common. Who would have thought!

I've discussed and will continue to discuss the Capitals power play at length, but let's talk some basic PK theory for a minute. Against the Capitals' 1-3-1 attack, there are essentially two main coverage options, with variations depending on personnel. The first is a wedge + one (essentially a triangle with a fourth guy chasing the puck), as the Buffalo Sabres illustrated in a solid PK performance a few games ago.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin can get a shot off using this structure, but that's likely to happen anyway. The Sabres here used big fierce defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to attempt to quickly close down the space on the Capitals' captain whenever he anticipates Niskanen shifting the puck to the left. The main downside to this strategy is that it can tire out the "one," and by pulling them out of position can find easy openings down the other side. 

The alternative is a diamond structure, usually with the player on the right side cheating towards Ovechkin. As I've written before, if this player is Sidney Crosby or Nathan MacKinnon, you're in trouble. It's not a strict shadow, it's simply a lean. The advantage here is that the outside players can put more pressure on Backstrom/Kuznetsov and Ovechkin along the half-boards. The downside is that there can be confusion in terms of guarding the slot man. That's been a problem for the Rangers, Avalanche, and others.

There are obviously variations to these strategies, and there is a hybrid box/wedge structure where the top man only chases to his side and then swaps with the player at the top of the triangle. For my project, I have been attempting to track PK formations, but that may be the least reliable of my data, since it is my belief that coaches designate players to guard players more so than simply areas. That is at least how it appears from watching film.

So that brings us to the Blue Jackets. Justin Falk takes a double-minor for high-sticking early in the second period, and the Capitals have the chance to pot two goals in four minutes on the man advantage.

Columbus starts out on a wedge + one, and tries to be aggressive chasing the puck carrier. When the puck moves over to the left, Seth Jones steps out to cut down Ovechkin's angle, minimizing the shooting threat. All appears fine.

The problem arises when Ovechkin doesn't shoot, but instead passes back across to Kuznetsov. The Capitals' top sniper, you see, is actually an underrated playmaker, and knows when defenses are too focused on him. 

Now Jones is caught. Two Capitals forwards are behind their markers, and with a skilled passer like Evgeny Kuznetsov, it's only a matter of time before a pass connects for a tip-in. When playing a wedge, the right-side defender has to cover the right side of the net. So Jones hurries back. 

But Jones' responsibility was also to stay close to Ovechkin. In effect, Tortorella was asking Jones to cover both a player and an area. It wasn't a particularly astute plan although to be fair one that many coaches have employed — and a clear passing lane presents itself to Kuznetsov.

Ovechkin makes it 3-1 Caps only 11 seconds into the first half of the double minor. All it took was one pass cross-ice to unravel the penalty kill.

A minute later, the Caps are once again set up in the zone. Cam Atkinson of the Jackets is playing the top of the wedge and is trying to cut off the pass back to the point, limiting Nicklas Backstrom's options. 

As illustrated, the PKers have sticks blocking every dangerous passing lane for an immediate one-timer. But, of course, on power plays you have one more player than your opposition, so somebody is bound to be open. By finding that player, you can isolate a single defender against two aggressors, and pounce.

If Columbus is playing a wedge, the issue here is that Jack Johnson, the Jackets defender on the right of the screen is too high. If they are resorting to a diamond, then his partner (Cody Goloubef) is too far from the net. Either way, there is a hole down low that is a result of trying to prevent up-top passing movement.

Suddenly, both penalty kill defensemen are exposed. Neither knows who is meant to cover Kuznetsov on the goal-line, and desperation takes over. Both players lunge, but not quick enough, and Ovechkin gets a patented one-timer from close in. Luckily, Sergei Bobrovsky is alert to the situation, challenges aggressively at the top of his creases, and makes the save.

Thirty seconds later, and the Caps are back in formation. Kuznetsov has the puck along the right half-boards, and one again the Blue Jackets appear confused as where the responsibility for covering the net front lies. Kuznetsov, playing power play QB like a football QB, doesn't stare down his receiver. He looks to Ovechkin, who is covered but looming dangerously on the left. 

Jones, once again on the PK, reads Kuznetsov's eyes and anticipates a pass across to Ovechkin. He breaks up ice just as the pass is about to be released. 

Expertly, though, Kuznetsov knew his higher percentage target was in front of the net with Backstrom. He looks Jones off and then threads the needle in front to a waiting Backstrom, normally the facilitator, who has nary scored an easier goal in his career.

Once again, the Capitals power play comes out victorious, finishing 2-for-2 on the night. In terms of answers, there aren't many. The Sabres have taught us that pressuring the Caps on the breakout can lead to success, and pouncing every time the puck is along the boards or juggled at the point can cause turnovers. But really, the only success any time has had thus far against this dynamo has been when the Caps' five-man unit has made it so. Every player has bad games, and if a couple of those players have bad power plays that coincide, then we see an 0-for. But as a penalty killer, you can't bank on that. All you can do is know exactly who you're covering, or where you're covering, and how to handle every possible play the Caps can throw your way. For John Tortorella, it's back to the drawing boards, maybe for a little longer than last time around.