- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2020

ARLINGTON — For a team that’s still tied for first place in the NHL entering Monday, the Washington Capitals have several problems on their hands. Nick Jensen has underperformed as a top-four defenseman. Braden Holtby’s save percentage for the season just dipped below .900.

And the power play, a clear strength on paper, has hit a midseason rut, as it seems to do every year.

Coach Todd Reirden took a rather large corrective measure by making a personnel change: Jakub Vrana played on the No. 1 power play unit for the first time Saturday, replacing Evgeny Kuznetsov. As if it was scripted, Vrana responded by scoring his first power-play goal of the year against the Devils — each of his previous 19 goals this season came at even strength.

But that was the only bright spot in an otherwise embarrassing 5-1 loss.

The Capitals’ power play failed to score on a 5-on-3 opportunity, finished the game 1-for-5 and is now 6 for its last 43 chances since Dec. 14 (13.9%). The unit frequently turned over the puck and allowed two odd-man rushes and a solo breakaway, one of which turned into a New Jersey shorthanded goal. Reirden made clear after the game that the power play scoring a goal while giving one up wasn’t going to cut it.

“I think that the execution in those situations, the chemistry, it is going to take a little bit,” Reirden said. “A different feel with some guys. We did get some chances that we were unable to convert on, but to give up shorthanded goals and shorthanded opportunities is not any way to have success on your power play and ultimately will never win out in the end.”

Washington may have some more experimenting to do before the power play is cured, but when the Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, expect to see Vrana back with the No. 1 unit alongside Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie — three of whom were voted All-Stars this year.

Kuznetsov anchored the second power-play group with Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov and new addition Brendan Leipsic. Reirden wanted to make the power play less predictable, which the Capitals can achieve in a variety of ways, whether it’s different personnel, strategy or set-up plays. 

Vrana’s speed is useful for power-play zone entries, and once in the offensive zone he spent most of his time along the goal line, occasionally moving over to the half-wall where Backstrom usually plays.

Fittingly, Vrana’s goal came from up close. Devils goalkeeper Louis Domingue stopped a Backstrom shot, but the rebound leaked out to the far post and Vrana was quick to collect it.

“His ability to make plays from the goal line I think is something we really haven’t seen over the years very much,” Reirden said at Sunday’s practice, “so something that we’ll be able to see more of as we continue down the road with these groups as they are.”

Vrana said it’s “just a matter of time” until the puck starts finding the net more consistently for the unit again.

“I think we created some chances,” Vrana said. “We had some O-zone time. Obviously, there was that (Devils) goal we got scored on. That’s one of the things I think we also have to clear (up) a little bit.”

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