Adam Oates didn’t want the pressure and expectations that come with having the NHL’s top power play. But he’s got it with the Washington Capitals.The Caps have a power-play goal in four straight games and five of their past six. And it’s not because they changed a whole lot.
“There’s predictability,” Oates said recently. “But if we execute I don’t think it can be stopped.”
It’s all about perfect execution, something the Caps showed in the opposite way Tuesday night at the Pittsburgh Penguins when they were unable to score on a four-minute power play. The next day at practice, Oates went through more than a half-hour’s worth of work, explaining what needed to happen to get the puck into the net.
Everything starts with center Nicklas Backstrom.
“We just go over the reps. It’s reads,” Oates said. “Technically we start with Backy, and Backy’s got five options. We just want to keep him fresh so he knows where they are, make sure everybody knows where they are.”
With Mike Green back in the lineup, the top power-play unit features the 27-year-old defenseman, Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. That unit scored a goal in each victory against the Winnipeg Jets, Thursday and Friday, helping Washington climb to within three points of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot going into Sunday’s game at the New York Rangers.
Backstrom has just one power-play goal in 31 games this season. But he clearly quarterbacks the power play.
“Tom Brady’s the quarterback,” Oates said, comparing the two-time NFL MVP to Backstrom. “He gets five choices after he throws the ball; next snap Tom Brady gets the ball. He gets picked off, Tom Brady gets the ball and he goes through the same five choices. So you’ve got to get him conditioned on what those reads are.”
Backstrom’s spot along the half-wall allows him to find Ribeiro along the goal line, Green at the point, Brouwer in the slot or Ovechkin across the ice in the opposite faceoff circle.
Ovechkin has by far the most power-play goals on the team with 10. But that doesn’t mean the unit is one-dimensional.
“The power play is not designed for Ovi,” Oates said. “There’s five guys, he’s probably three of the 10 options, but obviously a lot of rebounds go his direction and that’s why he’s there. He also can score from there, which is a rare commodity, but we still have other guys. We should be able to stuff the puck, point shot, rebound [that] Brouw scores from the diamond, backdoor plays, traffic, second chances. They’re all supposed to work.”
A lot of things have worked for the Caps, and part of the reason has to do with Ribeiro making some nifty passes from his spot at the side of the net. Eight different players have scored on the power play, and the Caps are clicking at 24.5 percent.
Being strong on the power play isn’t the same as being different, though. Oates said he didn’t change much from last year’s system and doesn’t want his players trying to deviate too much because even while predictable, it’s working.
“I’m a believer in the puck moving faster than the person,” Oates said. “You want to not let them reset. And now a bad pass slows you down, a goalie making saves slows you down. And if that happens it goes back to Nick and we start over.”
Tuesday night’s hiccup cost the Caps dearly against the Penguins. Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen scored the game-winner seconds after the four-minute power play was over.
But forward Marcus Johansson said it didn’t take a failure like that to remind the Caps what needs to happen on the power-play.
“I think we always know we have to work on everything,” Johansson said. “You can’t because you’re good a couple games or good for a while, you can’t stop working on it. Every game is a new game where the opponents do different stuff and you have to do different stuff to solve situations.”
But not scoring at such a crucial moment in the game stood out, even though the Caps went into that game ranked third in the league. It was Oates’ hope that practice made for better muscle memory.
“He just wants to make sure we know where our outs are where are options are,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “Making sure guys are making good reads and not trying to force things because as the PP went on that’s what we started to try and do. Even on the breakouts we were forcing passes into guys who are by themselves and that’s why we kept getting it turned back.”
The power play does look its sharpest when Ribeiro or Backstrom is able to find Ovechkin for a wide-open shot into a wide-open net. Even if it isn’t an Ovechkin-centric power play, Oates said it’s a “myth” to think an opposing penalty kill can stop the captain if everything is done perfectly.
“I don’t think you can,” Oates said. “But the other four guys have got to make the right plays.”
There aren’t many opportunities in this shortened season with a condensed schedule for the Caps to go through drill after drill to get something right. There’s no telling how dominant the power play could be after they got that chance.
“Just because we’ve been doing good, it’s not perfect,” Johansson said. “It can always get better. I like that you always keep working on stuff. That’s what makes you great.”