Special teams could be pivotal in Penguins-Capitals series
The challenge is obvious.
The same goes for the threat.
To beat the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Penguins must neutralize Washington’s dynamic, Alex Ovechkin-fueled power play.
Not only that, the Penguins know they’ll have to be the better team with the man-advantage.
“They have a good power play,” Patric Hornqvist said. “We have a good power play. Whoever wins that battle is probably going to win the series.”
Having the superior power play was tied to success during the regular season, as the teams split four meetings.
In games the Capitals won, they went 4 for 11 on the power play. They were 1 for 7 when they lost. The Penguins were 2 for 3 in wins, 2 for 9 in losses.
Both teams are built to rely on power-play success. If Kris Letang was healthy, the Penguins would have 50 percent ($36.5 of $70 million) of their salary cap allocated to their top power-play unit. The Capitals spend 37.8 percent (nearly $28 million) of the cap ceiling there.
Such prioritization shows up when you look at what happens when these teams find success on special teams.
When the Penguins got a power-play goal this season, they were 34-6-5 (.811). The Capitals were even more dominant, going 37-6-2 (.844) in those situations.
Taking that a step further, the Capitals are 50-2 the last two seasons when they win the special teams battle – defined here as scoring more power-play goals than they allow – while the Penguins are 46-2-2.
“Special teams are huge,” Hornqvist said. “We saw that in the first round.”
How the Capitals score on the power play is hardly a secret. Ovechkin from the left circle. Rinse, wash, repeat. The right-handed sniper tied for the NHL lead with 17 power-play goals. Since 2005-06, Ovechkin has 212 power-play goals – 83 more than anyone else.
The Capitals have other options, but the Penguins are plenty aware of what their opponent would like to do.
“Ovechkin’s going to be dangerous, as he always is, on the weak side on the power play,” Ian Cole said. “We need to be able to find him and try to shut him down.”
Expect the Penguins to shade more toward Ovechkin on the penalty kill, but they also need to respect center Nicklas Backstrom, who produced an NHL-high 35 power-play points during the regular season.
Ditto for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the biggest acquisition any NHL team made at the trade deadline. Shattenkirk’s 27 power-play points during the regular season trailed only Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman (33) among NHL defensemen.
“They’re going to be a challenge to play, for sure,” Cole said. “They’re a very good team.”
So, too, are the Penguins.
Like the Capitals, the Penguins clicked at 23.1 percent this season with the man-advantage, the team’s fifth-best mark over the past 27 seasons. They tied for third in the league in 2016-17.
Sidney Crosby saw more time in the middle of the ice and below the goal – a strength for him – and wound up scoring 44 goals. That was the second-best total of his career, while a team-high 14 of those came on the power play, the most for Crosby since his rookie season (16).
Evgeni Malkin called Phil Kessel a couple days ago the most dangerous man on the power play. It’s tough to argue, but Malkin’s not giving himself enough credit. The puck movement tends to improve with Malkin in the lineup.
Justin Schultz has enjoyed a career-year while regularly quarterbacking the No. 1 unit. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, if he doesn’t already, should detest Hornqvist by the second period of Game 1.
Against the Blue Jackets, the Penguins power play was absolutely a strength, going 5 for 15 (33 percent) in five games.
“I thought our power play was a difference-maker in the series,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “The guys on it did a terrific job. They were invested. They were winning puck battles.
“The decisions they made, their collective effort as a group, they were taking what they game gave them. As a result, we had success.”
Two aspects of the power play that Sullivan was particularly pleased with involved the unit’s breakouts and zone entries. The result was a lot of zone time. With the players on either the Capitals or the Penguins, that can turn deadly in a hurry.
“We were in the zone a lot,” Crosby said. “I think when you’re maybe a little bit more fresh, making those breakouts, you’re not having to go back two or three times. I think that helps a lot. For the most part, we just executed well.”
The difficult part of pegging Capitals-Penguins to a battle of two loaded power plays is this: The Capitals went 5 for 23 (21.7 percent) in this series a season ago and lost in six games. The Penguins were 3 for 19 (15.8 percent), didn’t score until Game 5 and won.
It does not seem, however, that anybody expects that trend to continue.
“I think we’re going to see a different look when we play Washington,” Crosby said of facing the Capitals versus the Blue Jackets. “We’ll have to adjust. It’s kind of the same things that make you successful as you go along. We’ll look to do that.”