Why the Caps’ power play is struggling

Through four games, the Washington Capitals’ power play is at the bottom of the NHL. Across 13 opportunities, Washington has spent a total of 23 minutes 30 seconds on the power play and has yet to score — one of only two teams in the league without a power-play goal. The St. Louis Blues rank 31st, one spot above the Capitals, because they have had fewer opportunities with the man advantage.

Washington Coach Spencer Carbery spent the previous two seasons running the power play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And during his time on Toronto’s staff, the Maple Leafs, who meet the Capitals at Capital One Arena on Tuesday, finished first and second in the league in power-play percentage. Carbery hired Kirk Muller in July to run Washington’s power play; Muller has run power plays for the Calgary Flames, the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis.

Despite his recent experience, Carbery said during training camp that the power play is Muller’s “baby.” Their philosophies for the unit are in alignment and they discuss it regularly, but Muller is in control of the day-to-day coaching and operation.

The Capitals’ top power-play unit — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson — has been written on the lineup card in Sharpie for nearly a decade. Ovechkin’s one-timer from the left faceoff circle is one of the most consistent weapons in the league, but it’s also a weapon that opponents know Washington wants to use.

“You have to reinvent yourself as a power play, and that’s probably one of the things that we’re trying to do, and there’s some growing pains early with it,” Carbery said. “You have to find different things that you do well. If you just stick to two options that you’ve done for 10 years and look for those two options, guess what? The other 31 teams know those two options.”

Muller has introduced more motion to Washington’s power play, with Oshie, Backstrom and Kuznetsov rotating at various points among the slot, below the goal line and the right half wall, while Carlson and Ovechkin interchange between the circle and the point at times. The intention is to create more motion, giving opposing penalty killers more elements to defend, eventually stretching them out and creating more space for the Capitals to score.

Getting comfortable with the new reads and structure was expected to take a bit of time, but the issues Washington has had in scoring at even strength have magnified the importance of the power play’s contributions.

“[We’re] just trying to dictate the play a little bit more,” Carlson said. “We obviously try to move around a little bit. … I think we can do a better job of stretching them out and maybe opening up some more seams, opening up some different types of looks.”

According to Natural Stat Trick, Washington has 4.41 expected goals on the power play — the eighth most in the league despite ranking 27th in power-play time. In comparison, the Maple Leafs have spent just four more seconds on the power play and have scored four goals on 3.07 expected goals. The New York Rangers, the next-closest team at 22:54 of power-play time, have two goals on 2.58 expected goals. The Capitals aren’t devoid of scoring chances, but they aren’t capitalizing on the ones they get.

“We’re getting a lot of looks,” Carlson said. “Yes, we need to score or else it doesn’t really freaking matter. But [we don’t want] to start trying to do too much. I think whenever you try to squeeze the stick a little too tight, that’s when you start overpassing. You feel like you can’t score on your good looks, so then you’ve got to get a better look. Those are hard in this league. There’s only so many layups you have in a season.”

At Monday’s practice, center Dylan Strome swapped units with Backstrom and moved up, while Backstrom skated on the second unit with Rasmus Sandin, Matthew Phillips and Tom Wilson. (Sonny Milano played in the left circle for that unit during practice, but in games, Ovechkin stays out for the full power play.)

Much like Carbery’s tweaks to the forward lines as the Capitals struggle to score at five-on-five, moving Strome was done with the hope of getting the power play out of the early-season slump. Strome scored two goals in Saturday’s game in Montreal, becoming the first Washington player with a multi-goal game this season.

“Your top players play on the power play. When they’re feeling it and that’s going, usually it helps their five-on-five game,” Carbery said. “In that sense, I would say it correlates. It’s an area we focused on today [and] we’ve talked a lot about. We knew there was going to be some growing pains with changing some things that we’re still trying to implement right now, but we do need to get our special teams overall going.”

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