- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Washington Capitals’ offensive struggles last season are well-documented. They were so much of a burden that they led to the implementation of a defensive style that compensated for a decline in goals.

It’s not hard to tell a major source of the problem.

“If you look at them last year, the only thing that separated them from being an elite team was a bad power play,” TSN analyst Bob McKenzie said in a phone interview last week.

The decline has been sharp, from at or near the top of league standings in 2008-09 and 2009-10 to downright mediocre last season. Three seasons ago, the Caps had 85 power play goals, in 2009-10 it was 79 and then 46 last season.

“I think there was way too long for this interview to tell you all the different little things that went wrong,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Up to Dec. 1, we were second or third in the league at that point, too, and we were climbing. All of a sudden, the wind went out of our air bubble for eight games and we couldn’t get back on track.”

And it’s no coincidence that a faltering power play was at least partially to blame for early playoff exits in each of the past two seasons, as Washington combined to go 6-for-68 (8.82 percent) with the man advantage.

“I think if anything we were also guilty of trying to be too clean at times — making the perfect pass every time,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “I think sometimes power plays work best when they’re simple: Shoot the puck a lot.”

Now several months removed from last year’s power play debacle, Boudreau compared this season to getting a fresh start on the back nine of a golf course after a rough front nine. And with that comes this training camp, where the Caps still have more than two weeks and five more preseason games to work on things.

That includes a chance to experiment a little bit with left wing Alex Ovechkin on the half wall rather than at his usual point position. Part of it is the numerous options the Caps have to play the points - defensemen Mike Green, John Carlson, Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik chief among them.

“Me and Bruce talk about which position for me is better to play. I just tell him I can play half board because lots of times I have more pressure than everybody,” Ovechkin said. “The ‘D’ and the forwards were going to play on my side - they’re going to come a little bit closer to me, so I can find the space, I can find my partners open. If not, I can still get shots or make some plays.”

Tuesday’s preseason opener, a 2-0 loss to Nashville in Baltimore, provided only a couple of chances for Ovechkin to play along the left side of the offensive zone. Though the Caps didn’t score, his wrist shot from closer in can be deceptive — a nice weapon to have. His point shot is wicked, too, and Boudreau noted that five-on-three he’ll likely put Ovechkin back on the blue line “because nobody shoots the puck harder than him.”

And while the power play goes through Ovechkin, he might be able to cycle the puck around better from closer to the net.

“I can move in the middle and take a shot, or I can give a pass down low and take a couple steps to the middle, if the ‘D’ didn’t see me, I’d be wide open,” he said. “It’s good, because I don’t want to be the guy who only stands on the point and waits for one-timer.”

Boudreau talked about wanting to play his veterans and star players a lot in the preseason. If that goes according to plan, it will give the projected power play unit the chance to jell.

Brooks Laich pointed out that most of that group has been together for a few years — through the lows and the highs — and that much will stay the same.

“For the majority of us — myself and Mike Knuble are going to be around the net, [Nick Backstrom is] going to control the puck, [Alexander] Semin’s going to control the puck, Mike Green’s going to be moving and sort of a rover,” Laich said. “So maybe switch Al up a little bit, just to give different looks.”

Ovechkin likes the challenge after five years in one spot. And Boudreau likes the leadership that comes from his captain’s willingness to shift out of his comfort zone.

But most of all, Boudreau wants to see results.

“It’s one of these things that for the next 17 days we’ll experiment with probably a lot to see something that really clicks,” he said. “I’d like to be able to see something that clicks and stay with it for a long period of time.”

And in their perfect world, the Caps find the right mix to last through spring and into summer.

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