What's to Love and Hate About Washington Capitals' Special Teams

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIAugust 24, 2013

What's to Love and Hate About Washington Capitals' Special Teams

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    During the 2013 NHL season, the Washington Capitals' special teams seemed to be suffering from multiple personality disorder at times.

    The power play was dominant. The Caps had the best power play in the NHL with a 26.8 percent success rate. Not even the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins could match that as they were a full two percentage points behind the Caps at 24.7 percent.

    The penalty kill, however, was an exercise in futility more often than not. The Caps PK ranked 27th in the NHL with a penalty kill success rate of just 77.9 percent.

    To be fair, the Caps PK got better as the year went on and as the team grew more accustomed to head coach Adam Oates' system. Nevertheless, the Caps' failure to be more efficient on the penalty kill had a definite impact on their overall success last season.

    In the playoffs against the New York Rangers, the Caps' power-play success rate dipped to 18.8 percent. Of course, part of the problem was that the Caps power-play chances were limited against the Rangers, particularly in Game 6, where they did not get one power-play opportunity.

    But the Caps' penalty kill improved dramatically against the Rangers. The team stopped the Blueshirts on 92.9 percent of their power-play opportunities.

    So what gives with the Caps' special teams? Is the power play really that good? Is the penalty kill really that bad, or was the performance in the playoffs indicative of an improving and underrated aspect of the team?

    Here are a few things to love and hate about the Caps' special teams.

Alexander Ovechkin

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    If you are a fan of the Washington Capitals, then one thing you have to love about the Caps power play is Alexander Ovechkin.

    There is no more dangerous player in the NHL when his team has a man advantage than the Great 8.

    Last season, Ovi led the NHL in goals with 32. Half of those goals were scored on the power play. No one was really close to Ovechkin in this category. Steven Stamkos was a somewhat distant second with 10 power-play goals.

    If you spend some time to look at Ovi's goals from the 2013 season—included in the video to this slide—then Ovechkin's lethality on the power play becomes readily apparent.

    What has to be frustrating for the opposition is that they know what is coming. It is no secret that Ovi is going to float to the left faceoff circle and try and set up for a slap shot or for one of the best wrist shots in the game.

    Everyone knows this—and no one can seem to stop it.

    It is almost unfair at times. Ovechkin has one of the best shots in the NHL, whether it is a one-timer, a slap shot or a wrister. To give him a clear line of sight to the goalie—with all that skill at his disposal—well...good luck stopping that.

    And more often than not, opponents can't stop him. Beyond that, though, with the opposition having to account for Ovi's whereabouts at all times, it opens up opportunities for other players.

    This is why the Caps led the NHL in power-play percentage last season. Since everything gets funneled toward Ovechkin, the opposing PK unit must respect that or pay the price. Quite often, the price is paid anyway.

    Last season, three of the top 30 power-play goal scorers were members of the Caps. Troy Brouwer was tied for 15th with seven power-play goals, while Mike Ribeiro was tied for 19th with six power-play tallies.

    I expect more of the same this season. Teams will still have to key on Ovechkin out of necessity, and he will still score a lot of power-play goals. What will be interesting is to see how players like Brouwer or the recently acquired Mikhail Grabovski benefit from teams having to focus so much on shutting down Ovechkin.

    The stellar play of Ovechkin on the power play, though, is one thing you have to love about the Caps' special teams.

The Penalty Kill Needs to Be More Aggressive

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    Switching over to something about the Caps' special teams that is not so good, we have to look at the penalty-killing unit and try and dissect it to figure out what exactly might be wrong with it.

    As mentioned at the outset, the Caps PK got progressively better as the season went along, and it performed very well against the New York Rangers in the playoffs.

    Still, it is hard to discount that pretty dreadful 27th-place ranking in penalty-kill efficiency over the course of last season.

    My belief is that the Caps are just not aggressive enough on the PK. They allow the opposition to set up the shot too much. There are not enough really aggressive attempts being made to dislodge the puck or create true shorthanded scoring opportunities.

    If you don't want to take my word for it based on efficiency rate alone, then maybe this stat will convince you: The Caps ranked 29th in the NHL last year as far as allowing shots while they were on the penalty kill.

    Only the Dallas Stars allowed more shots against while they were on the PK.

    I am adamantly convinced it is because the Caps do not press the opposition enough on the PK. Take some time and watch video of how the Boston Bruins or Chicago Blackhawks operate their PK units. There is a definite difference, and it is easy to notice after about five minutes of watching video.

    There are other factors that have to be considered as far as the Caps' penalty-killing woes last season are concerned. There was a loss of continuity. Dean Evason had been the Caps penalty-kill coach for the three previous seasons. Tim Hunter took over those duties last season, and the transition was not smooth.

    Hunter noted the Caps' problems stemmed from being too aggressive, a symptom of the system former head coach Dale Hunter had set in place the season prior, when it was stressed that the PK try and block every single shot fired at the net. The Caps tried to adjust. As a result, the PK became too passive.

    Near the end of April, in an article in The Washington Post, Tim Hunter discussed this very issue:

    We just wanted to rebuild the whole thing right from the get-go. There’s just been a whole revelation of how to kill penalties for our guys. They went from being completely aggressive to being somewhat passive and now we’re edging toward being a little more aggressive in certain areas.

    That might be the secret for the Caps PK to take a big step forward this season: It must find a way to balance being too aggressive while at the same time guarding against being too passive. Near the end of the season, the PK seemed to be finding its way.

    Still, one can argue the PK was not aggressive enough even then. Bear in mind that the Caps generated only three shorthanded goals last season. That's not a terrible total, but it was still just middle-of-the-pack.

    The lack of aggression in the Caps PK unit is one aspect of the special teams you just might hate.

Mike Green Quarterbacking the Power Play

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    Another thing you have to love about the Caps power-play unit is when Mike Green is quarterbacking the attack.

    So much of what the Caps do on the power play begins and ends with Green.

    Much of that has to do with the Caps switching to a 1-3-1 formation on the power play last season. This type of formation naturally keeps one player near the net and another player at the point. Three other players help to move the puck around. As the defense reacts, it also collapses.

    Eventually, someone will get left open.

    Usually, the player near the net—and the player getting open—was Alexander Ovechkin. Green was usually playing the point. It was Green's job to move the puck and get it to the three other players hanging around the slot and the two faceoff circles.

    As evidenced by Ovechkin's league-leading 16 power-play goals, the strategy worked very well.

    But Green is more than just a distributor. He can score, too. Green led all NHL defensemen with 12 goals last season. Four of those goals came on the power play. Green also led all Caps defensemen with 10 power-play assists last season.

    Green's power-play prowess was evident in Game 2 of the Caps' Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the New York Rangers from the 2013 playoffs.

    The Caps and Rangers were locked in a scoreless struggle that spilled into overtime when the Caps got a lucky break and got a power-play opportunity. Green, playing at the point, was set up perfectly by Mike Ribeiro, and the Caps skated off with a 1-0 win.

    With a great shot, excellent vision and the ability to get the puck exactly where it needs to be on the power play, Green is actually one of the best point men in the NHL when his team has the man advantage.

    Having Green quarterbacking the team's power play is something all Caps fans can feel very good about.

They Can Still Be Too One-Dimensional

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    A big problem with the Caps' special teams—and something that has plagued them for more than one playoff series in their history—is that when their power play fails, the Caps become one-dimensional and fail to find other ways to score.

    Think back to the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens. I know—it hurts.

    The Caps had the best power play in the NHL during the regular season. It clicked at an efficiency rate of 25.2 percent. When the Caps took a 3-1 series lead against Montreal, it seemed that their power play would have to come through eventually and carry the Caps to the next round.

    Those who recall the series know what happened. In Game 5, the Caps went 0-for-5 on the power play and could only muster a second-period goal from Alexander Ovechkin. It was not enough, and the Habs forced a Game 6.

    In Game 6, the Caps had six more power-play opportunities, but they just could not solve Jaroslav Halak. The Canadiens forced Game 7 with a 4-1 win.

    In Game 7, the Caps again got blanked on the power play, going 0-for-3. Once again, the Caps could only come up with one even-strength goal, as they suffered a stunning upset.

    Against the Habs, the power play went a pathetic 1-for-33. The Caps did not know how to score once their vaunted power play deserted them.

    The next season, the Caps power play was not nearly as good, ranked 15th in the NHL with an 18.6 percent success rate.

    In the playoffs, though, the power play failed miserably yet again. In the two series against the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, the power play went 5-for-35 for a success rate of  just 14.3 percent.

    To be fair, the Caps' problem against the Lightning was not their inability to score goals—it was their inability to stop the Lightning from scoring that was their undoing.

    We saw the same thing happen this year against the New York Rangers. At a 26.8 percent efficiency rate, the Caps power play in 2013 was even better than it had been in 2009-10. And against the Rangers, the Caps power play was much more reliable, as it converted on three of 11 chances.

    But then you look back at a devastating Game 6 loss. In that game, with the Caps leading the series 3-2, they did not get a single power-play opportunity.

    While most of us still question the officiating in that game, the fact remains that as that game wore on, the Caps seemed to get one-dimensional. It was as though they were waiting for that one big power-play chance to come so that they could tie the game and then look for some way to get a second goal.

    It never came, and the Caps could not figure out a way to score at even strength.

    In Game 7, the Caps would get two power-play chances but would fail to connect. By then, though, the damage was done, the Rangers had momentum and the series was over.

    Again, the Caps need to find balance here. It is great that the power play is as lethal as it is. But this team must guard against being too reliant on the power play and, in doing so, becoming too one-dimensional.

    If head coach Adam Oates can figure out how to accomplish that this season, then the Caps could make some serious noise in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.