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Alex Ovechkin received a pass in the left faceoff circle—his oval office—a place he has amassed the lion’s share of his 247 career power play goals … and he didn’t shoot.
Instead, he passed the puck back to Capitals defenseman John Carlson at the top of the zone. Carlson faked a shot, then passed it back to Ovechkin, who hesitated twice before finally sending a slapshot careening wide of the Dallas Stars goal. Moments later, Stars defenseman John Klingberg hopped out of the penalty box back onto the ice, and the Capitals’ power play was over.
Washington would have four other chances to score on the man-advantage during Tuesday night’s game against Dallas at Capital One Arena, but failed to convert on them all. That power play futility brought Washington to an abysmal 2-for-16 on the season and 0-for-11 in their last two games—both overtime losses.
Despite amassing the third-most power play opportunities, the Capitals’ power play currently sits in 22nd place in the NHL, nearly ten percent below the league-wide average and a far cry from the 20.1 percent mark their unit set last year.
“We definitely need to continue to improve in that area, there’s no doubt about it,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden tells City Paper. “We were closer [against Dallas] than we were against Carolina [on Saturday] to having some success. Still, situations like 4-on-3 and 5-on-3, those need to be converted on.”
Which brings us back to Ovechkin. Already the owner of the fifth-most career power play goals in NHL history, the big Russian winger has so far struggled to generate scoring on the man-advantage. Leading Washington in power play time-on-ice with 25 minutes and 43 seconds, Ovechkin has just four shots on goal in sixteen power play opportunities and no goals yet.
At least part of that is due to the urgency with which opposing penalty kills have been trying to eliminate Washington’s greatest weapon.
“This season, they’ve been a little more aggressive on Ovi,” Reirden says. “It’s not a secret that teams are going to try to take away Ovechkin in those situations. They’ve been trying to do it for years.”
“Been trying to take it away from him for a long time,” Carlson adds with smile.
The American defenseman has recorded 127 power play assists during his career, most of those by feeding Ovechkin, his understood role to load the weapon. To Carlson, it’s not a question of Ovechkin playing better—it’s about making sure opposing teams have to seriously defend all five skaters on the ice. And he points to recent history as his proof.
“A couple years ago, teams were taking away Ovi so hard that T.J. [Oshie] was able to open up space,” Carlson says. “So they had to play both, to close down T.J., and [Ovechkin] got a lot of open looks.”
That’s why Carlson places the responsibility to jump start Washington’s power play production squarely on his shoulders—and the shoulders of his teammates. “We need to shoot,” he says. “Nick [Backstrom] needs to walk off the wall and be dangerous. They can’t just be playing Nick trying to find me with a pass, or trying to find Alex, or T.J.”
But Carlson acknowledges that the Capitals have an all-time great lurking in the circle, and that they need to get him the puck so he can do what he does best. “We all know who we want to shoot the puck,” he says of Ovechkin. “That’s probably the best scorer ever. You’ve got to give some people some middle fingers sometimes and play it how you see it.”
With games in the next week against the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and Toronto Maple Leafs, all of whom boast penalty kills in the top-half of the league, the Capitals—and Ovechkin—will have their work cut out for them.
But don’t bet against Ovechkin. His team definitely isn’t.
“You’re confident that a player like that, given that many opportunities, is going to convert,” Reirden says. “It’s up to us to be able to create those spots for him.”