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Penguins vs. Capitals - Pittsburgh's Power Play vs. Washington's Penalty Kill

Part three of a four-part series, in which we break down some of the system nuances specific to each team, as we prepare for their playoff series to start.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

You thought we were done with systems talk? Nope, not yet. Prashanth and I are back again, switching from regular breakouts and forechecks to the special teams side of things.

We've already hit on the following:

And now we're here to talk special teams. Today, we're going to cover Pittsburgh's Power Play against the Capitals' Penalty Kill, then later today we're going to switch sides.

Pittsburgh's Power Play

Before we can discuss Pittsburgh's in-zone setup, let's first discuss how Pittsburgh enters the zone on their powerplay.

The Drop-Pass

While many fans abhor it, the drop pass can be a very effective zone entry when utilized appropriately. Work done by Arik Parnass of the NHL Special Teams Project has shown that the drop pass can be equally effective when compared to other types of powerplay zone entries. Good news, as the Penguins primarily rely on the drop pass to enter the zone on the powerplay.

The creative thing about the Penguins' drop pass is that so many different players can execute the pass or receive the pass. In the particular example I've shown above, I have Kris Letang (58) skating the puck up and dropping it to Sidney Crosby (87) who then dishes to Phil Kessel (81). The Penguins can also have Malkin back to receive drop passes as well, which creates a different dimension. Perhaps the most impressive part of Pittsburgh's drop passes is that even when they aren't executed particularly well, the talent of Letang, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel can still overwhelm the defense.

The keys to a good drop pass are:

  1. Having the initial skater draw the initial forecheckers to one side with his speed
  2. Drop the puck back a short distance (not too far) so as to not lose the space created
  3. The puck recipient should move through neutral zone with speed to back off the defense

Well none of those happened in this play and the Penguins still scored a goal off the rush. You have a phenomenal pass by Crosby under the stick of Jesper Fast and then just an incredible shot by Phil Kessel. The Penguins will need to execute this pass better to be consistently successful

The Penguins In-Zone Setup

The Penguins as of late have been using the same personnel to start each 5v4 situation. It has consisted of Phil Kessel on the left half-wall, Sidney Crosby on the right half-wall and kind of roving into the zone down low in front of the net where Patric Hornqvist is also situated, and Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin covering the points.

An example of this setup working and working well and quickly came in Game 4 against the Rangers. Below is a sketch drawing how the positioning was set up leading to the goal.

Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were the primary gears making this goal happen, after the pass from Sidney Crosby to get the puck into space. Letang and Malkin went back and forth with the puck multiple times both before and after Kessel's attempted one-timer.

When Letang got the puck back, he froze the defenders on his side of the ice enough to create a narrow shooting lane for Malkin, who did so with ease. His shot ended up taking a deflection off of Crosby before trickling past Lundqvist, but any shot from Malkin can be a dangerous one.

Below is this power play in it's entirety from start to finish in a very successful manner.

Washington's Penalty Kill

When evaluating a team's penalty kill, there are two main aspects to focus on - forechecking and in-zone setup. Let's start with Washington's forecheck:

Washington's Forecheck

As aggressive as Washington's forecheck is at 5v5, they are equally passive on the penalty kill. There are many different forechecking systems that a 5v4 penalty kill can employ and the one most frequently used by Washington is referred to as a same-side press. The basic setup is shown to you below:

What we see here is as the puck moves up the ice, the first defender (Red C) will try to angle the puck carrier to one side of the ice. The second red forward is responsible for defending against all cross-ice neutral zone passes as well as drifting over to pinch the puck carrier at mid-ice. If the two forwards are successful at forcing a dump-in, D1 is in prime position to retrieve the puck. If the forwards fail, then D1 can decide to pinch up and force a dump-in from the blue line or retreat back and maintain position. Finally, D2 is responsible for blocking neutral zone cross-ice passes. Shown below is how the same-side press would theoretically defend the Penguins drop-pass.

As you can see, the same-side press can be a particularly difficult forechecking scheme to play against. However, the Capitals play a very passive same-side press. In the Capitals' same-side press, the neutral zone forward rarely engages at center ice and is instead more apt to drift back towards the blue to form a 1-3 scheme. Watch below as both Washington forwards fail to steer the Philadelphia puck carrier to one side of the ice.

As you can see, this didn't really resemble much of a "press" and in fact quickly developed into a passive 1-3 forecheck. It took me a couple of hours of watching the Caps penalty kill before I realized that they were trying to set up a same-side press but often played the puck carrier too passively. In the video above, Tom Wilson (#43) is right there at center ice to step up and hold his ground, but instead he elects to drop back to the blue line which results in an easy controlled zone entry for the Flyers.

Washington's In-Zone Coverage

While Washington's PK forecheck is relatively vanilla, their in-zone coverage is outstanding. The Capitals utilize a formation known as the "Czech Press" or "Wedge +1". This formation is shown to you below:

The basic principles of the Czech Press are to take away the slot and netfront passes while pressuring the puck with the high forward. The two forwards will rotate in and out of the wedge as the puck changes sides of the ice. The key to running an effective Czech Press is the ability to pressure the puck consistently without opening up cross-ice passing lanes. This is an area where the Capitals excel. Watch this clip below to gain an appreciation for how aggressive the Capitals forwards and defensemen are when it comes to defending a powerplay.

The read here by Matt Niskanen is absolutely superb. He recognizes that Shayne Gostisbehere only has one pass and that his forward in the middle of the ice is in position to take it away. He leaves the wedge to aggressively step up along the boards and intercepts the pass. Aggressive play by Tom Wilson at the top of the point allows Niskanen to make this read and shut down the Flyers' powerplay.

Series Key

I think the key to this series will be whether or not Pittsburgh can exploit Washington's lack of pressure on the forecheck. Pittsburgh's zone entries aren't spectacular in design, but their talent often overwhelms the opposition. Facing little pressure from Washington's forecheck might allow them to gain the zone more frequently. Once in the zone, Pittsburgh will need to get set up quickly and rely on their patience with the puck to exploit the Capitals' aggressiveness. Many teams have fallen victim to the pressure applied by the Capitals Czech Press, but I believe that the Penguins have the players to handle this.

Later on today, we'll hit the other side of this, with the Capitals Power Play and the Penguins Penalty Kill, so be sure to check back for that.