It can be poetry in motion, and it can be controlled chaos. One way or another, the puck is ending up in the back of the net.
Last season, the Washington Capitals had one of the best power-play units of the past decade. If Thursday night were any indication, there just might be room for improvement.
“It is because of [coach Bruce Boudreau],” forward Brooks Laich said. “He is the mastermind behind all of it. When we have success, if you were in our meetings in the morning, it is because we did the plays that Bruce pre-scouted and found a weakness on their penalty kill. When we don’t have success, it is when we go on our own page and try to make our own plays and don’t stick to the system.”
At 25.5 percent last year, the Detroit Red Wings posted the best power-play conversion rate since 1995-96. Checking in at 25.2 percent, Washington produced the second-best rate since Pittsburgh’s 26 percent 13 seasons ago.
The Caps went 2-for-4 on Thursday night. With another year together and the addition of Mike Knuble to cause havoc in front of the net, can the Caps lay claim to having the top power play in the NHL? And just how much can they improve?
“We’d like to be first, and we have the talent to be first,” Laich said. “Now it is just about staying disciplined and doing the things we were told to do.”
Laich registered a pair of extra-man markers in Washington’s 4-1 victory at Boston on Thursday. Both came from within inches of the goal line, but how the puck got to his stick was dramatically different.
His first goal was a symphony of skill. After a give-and-go with Alexander Semin coaxed the two Boston forwards toward the blue line, Alex Ovechkin sent a pass from the outside of the left circle to Nicklas Backstrom just inside the right circle.
The slick-passing center one-timed the puck toward the far post, where Laich knocked down the hard pass and flicked the puck into a wide open net. Bang, bang, boom - 15 seconds into the power play, and the Bruins didn’t have a chance.
“They’ve got great chemistry,” penalty-killing specialist Boyd Gordon said. “When they get moving around, they make people make decisions and they [create] two-on-ones on guys, and that’s when they’re successful. They know where everyone is.”
Laich’s next goal was a mixture of elegance and hustle. Ovechkin fanned on a shot and then threw the puck behind the net. Laich went to get it but missed. Instead, the puck continued to Semin, who snapped a pass from near the right corner to Backstrom cutting in front.
Tim Thomas made a dynamite save, but Laich had circled back in front and was able to fish the rebound from beneath Thomas before he could cover it and tap it into the net.
That’s what makes Washington’s power play so scary. The Caps can put four of the top offensive players in the world on the ice together and beat you with skill. Thanks to Laich and now Knuble, they also can beat you with will.
“There are five weapons out there,” Boudreau said. “It’s not like you’re looking at it and saying, ‘You’ve got to watch that guy on the point because he’s got a big shot or that guy on the half-wall because he is the guy who makes all the plays.’ All five guys can be the catalyst to making plays.”
Then there are Boudreau’s mad-scientist schemes. Many NHL teams stick to a relatively rigid system with the extra man; puck movement is what gets defenders out of position.
Washington’s young stars often move as much as the puck. There are areas in which they are likely to be - Ovechkin on the left point, Mike Green on the right point, Laich or Knuble near the crease, Backstrom at the half-wall - but Semin was at opposite corners of the zone when Laich’s goals went in.
“They’ve got latitude on what they can do, as long as it is in the confines of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Boudreau said. “It doesn’t mean that it is all set in stone and Player A has to go here and Player B there. Every play they do has three or four options, so it looks different because they can pick different options all the time.”
Added Green: “It is a lot of movement, and I know from playing on the PK it is more difficult when guys are moving around. It is hard to stay in position, and that’s what creates open shots.”