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

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Part four 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.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, gang, we're here to wrap up. Prashanth and I have had a ton of fun covering the different systems angles of this matchup

We hit on Pittsburgh's breakout and Washington's forecheck first.

Then we flipped it around and looked at the tenacious Pittsburgh forecheck and what the Capitals do breaking out.

We looked at what the Penguins do on the Power Play and what the Capitals do on the Penalty Kill.

And now, finally, we're here to look at the ridiculous Washington Power Play as well as what the Penguins plan while shorthanded is.

Washington's Power Play

Similar to yesterday, there are two elements of a powerplay we have to consider - the powerplay zone entries and in-zone setup.

Washington's Single Swing Zone Entry

Washington's primary powerplay zone entry play is referred to as the Single Swing. Shown below to you is the basic setup as well as a diagram of the passing options:

The diagram looks complicated and messy but on-ice it's a thing of beauty. The defenseman will skate out from behind the net with the puck. As he does that, the other defenseman and the center will execute quick regroups and start skating up their respective boards. In the meantime, the left winger at the top of the play will actually curl back towards the middle of the ice on his way to the left boards. Finally, the most important player is the right winger, who swings towards the middle to receive a pass. As you can see, the defenseman with the puck has four passing options available to him. All he needs to do is make the correct read. Watch the single swing in motion:

This is only one of the ways the Capitals have run the Single Swing entry this season. Other versions include the LW staying in place on the right boards or just streaking across the blue line to open up the possibility of the stretch pass. Most recently, I've noticed that the Capitals have utilized the version shown above which has the LW dipping down towards center ice en route to the left boards.

The Capitals personnel on the first powerplay unit is typically John Carlson as the puck carrying defenseman, Alex Ovechkin as the other "D", Marcus Johansson as the "C", T.J. Oshie as the LW, and either Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov as the swinging RW. The Single Swing entry with this team is one of the most effective zone entries in the NHL. Data from Arik Parnass' work over at the NHL Special Teams Project demonstrated that the Capitals successfully entered the zone on 44.84% of their single swing zone entries, compared to an average of 28.91% for the zone entries of the other five teams he studied.

Washington's 1-3-1 Powerplay

Again, jumping back to Parnass' work, he's recently established the Zone Entry to Formation or danger Rush rate (ZEFR) statistic which is defined as the percentage of 5-on-4 entry attempts that result in either a scoring chance off the rush or the team getting set up in formation. Of the six teams that Parnass studied, no team did a better job than the Capitals of quickly getting into powerplay formation.

Capitals Powerplay Success Arik Parnass - NHL Special Teams Project

Capitals Powerplay Success - Credit: Arik Parnass, NHL Special Teams Project

Once in the zone, the Capitals like to set up in a 1-3-1 powerplay scheme which looks like this:

The advantage of the 1-3-1 powerplay is that it creates several passing triangles as well as numerous opportunities for one-timers. I don't think there is a team in the NHL that does a better job of creating one-timers than the Capitals. I've heard many people call the Capitals powerplay "predictable" in the sense that we know the puck is going to Ovechkin. How come nobody has been able to consistently stop it?

The first part is that the Capitals set up the powerplay in a manner that is conducive to generating one-timers.

The powerplay operates through Backstrom along the right boards. What makes this setup so brilliant is that Carlson (74), Ovechkin (8), and Oshie (77) are all right-handed shots. That means that if Backstrom can get them the puck, they are all in position for a one-timer. Additionally, Johansson (90) is left-handed, meaning that his stick is away from the defense. This allows him to offer a low-risk passing lane for Backstrom as well as the ability to whip a pass into the slot without worrying about the defense being able to block it. The simple concept of having sticks in shooting position allows this Capitals powerplay to generate dangerous opportunities.

In this sequence look how Backstrom identifies Carlson and Ovechkin on separate passes for quick plays to the net. The added bonus is that if Ovechkin wants to pass the puck back across the ice, Johansson and Backstrom are left-handed and in position to one-time the puck. Focusing on Ovechkin now, the way the Capitals isolate him is by forcing the forwards on the penalty kill to collapse down low and thus be late on their rotations:

This isn't from the playoffs obviously but it's my go-to clip on how NOT to defend Alex Ovechkin. The Detroit Red Wings penalty killers think they are being smart by not pressuring Evgeny Kuznetsov and instead collapsing low to take away the direct cross-ice pass to Ovechkin. The problem is that the penalty killers are applying zero pressure to Kuznetsov and are not taking away the pass to Carlson. If you do not pressure Backstrom/Kuznetsov with the top forward in the Czech Press and allow them to have the passing angle to Carlson, you will be in for a long night of Ovechkin one-timers. Instead of Luke Glendening collapsing into the wedge, he needs to be out higher taking away the passing lane to Carlson while Drew Miller focuses on the slot man.

Pittsburgh's Penalty Kill

The days of the Penguins PK unit being a liability due to useless players like Craig Adams and Rob Scuderi being featured pieces on it are no longer. The PK unit under Mike Sullivan has become tenacious and aggressive. That aggressiveness has done wonders in helping to shut down other teams on the Power Play.

Personnel and Positioning

The Penguins as of lately have penalty killers out who are fast, smart, and skilled. Why use your 4th line players as your PK guys when you can combat an aggressive power play with an aggressive penalty kill? Players featured for the Pens PK include Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole, and others.

Below, an example of this setup on a good penalty kill.

Here, a man short, the Penguins managed to have all of the Rangers players on the ice either covered, or not in a scoring situation. Nick Bonino had the point man covered for either a shot, and also forcing a pass to the left to be crisp. Carl Hagelin was covering that man to the left available for a one-timer. Trevor Daley and Ian Cole both were with their men in the slot and in front of the net, respectively. Mats Zuccarello was on the half-wall in a completely harmless area. Good setup.


Being aggressive has been such a massive key for the Penguins when shorthanded.

In this situation, Kris Letang is able to recover a puck from the Rangers near the halfway point of the power play. Rather than quickly clear the puck, he makes the smart play with a pass to Matt Cullen, who also realizes there is only one Rangers player in front of him. He takes that puck at him head-on, forcing him to back off and cover, taking a good 20 to 30 seconds away from the Rangers power play. Smart, smart play.


The Penguins players working together and supporting one in another, in addition with being aggressive is so very important. Communicate.

Here, Ian Cole made a bad read covering Zuccarello entering the zone. He was beaten on the play, but the Penguins other PKers put themselves in good position to support the bad read and kept the play from being any worse. Of Zuccarello's options available to him, none of them were high percentage chances. Matt Murray was in good position to make a save if he had decided to shoot. Daley, Bonino, and Hagelin had the other players available for passes and with space available covered as well.

This entire power play, up until the 0:25 mark can be seen below.

Shortly after the video ended, Rick Nash hit the post with a wide open net (LOL), and immediately after that, Sidney Crosby fed Conor Sheary with a pass that made the game 5-2. Such a swing between 4-3 and 5-2 on the scoreboard.

The Penguins have a competent and skilled penalty kill unit has been a joy to watch, and their aggressiveness has definitely been causing problems for opposing power play units. They will need to be at their best when the extremely dangerous Capitals PP unit takes the ice.

Series Key

Plain and simple the series key will be how well the Penguins can bottle up the vaunted Capitals' powerplay. After their five goal explosion in Game 3, the Philadelphia Flyers did a substantially better job of pressuring the Capitals zone entries. Additionally, the Flyers' forwards did a much better job of chasing Backstrom and Kuznetsov out of their comfort zone and eliminating the passes to Carlson and Ovechkin. In games 1-3, the Caps powerplay went 8-17 (47.1%) with 65 shots and 28 shots on goal. In games 4-6, after the Flyers adjustment, the Caps powerplay went 0-10 with 31 shots and 15 shots on goal. It can be stopped. The likely key to the entire series will be just how well the Penguins can do that.

Bonus Material: Proposed Penguins PK Forecheck

Force Carlson to move before the Caps Single Swing can get set up. Chase him behind the net and try and angle him to one side of the ice. Have the second winger in position to take away the single swing to Backstrom. Have the near side defenseman play a little more aggressively and hold his ground if the puck is passed to Johansson. Take away what the Capitals want to do and force them to dump the puck in early.

Bonus Part #2 - Penguins In-Zone Coverage:

Have the high forward get in the passing lane between Backstrom and Carlson. The forward still in the wedge is responsible for Oshie in the slot. The far-side defenseman is responsible for negating the pass to Ovechkin if he drifts lower. If he stays high, then the far side defenseman should be prepared to rotate and block the shot. Force Backstrom to either step in and shoot the puck himself or pass down low to Johansson. If the puck goes low to Johansson, the keys will be for the LW to get body position on Oshie, the near-side defenseman to aggressively pressure Johansson to the corner, and the far-side defenseman to take away the diagonal pass to Ovechkin.

Okay, so this series was an absolute joy to break down, and I greatly appreciate the help that Prashanth was able to provide, both in terms of leg work on the Washington side of things, as well as helping educate me and teach me a lot. He was a joy to work with and it's always fun to work with someone from another team in the SB Nation network. We appreciate all of the great feedback we've gotten on this series. It doesn't go unnoticed.