Much more than last series, special teams are going to be a point of emphasis for the Rangers as they take on the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Of course, the Rangers have power play woes to figure out, but more importantly they will have to deal with the stopping the Capitals' own power play. At five-against-five this season, the Capitals ranked just 15th in the NHL in goals for and 13th in goals for/against ratio. However, the Capitals own what was by far the NHL's best power play at a 25.3% efficiency, and scored the second-most five-against-four goals.
The key to stopping the Capitals' power play, obviously, is limiting Alexander Ovechkin's ability to impact the play. That's easier said than done. During the regular season, the Capitals went four-for-13 on the power play against the Rangers. And wouldn't you know it, Ovechkin scored all four of the goals; one in each game against the Rangers this season. Here is a look at all of them.
The Rangers, under Ulf Samuelsson, employ a strong-side penalty kill. What that means is that the penalty killers press towards wherever the puck is with the idea that it puts the puck carrier under pressure and limits the space available. It condenses the rink, in a sense. Sure, the Rangers will be exposed if you can manage to get the puck to the weak side, but good luck doing so.
But the Capitals are one of the few teams for whom this is an advantage. We see it in literally every single one of these goals. The Capitals know very well what the Rangers' strategy is, and so they work the puck along the right-side wall. Then, they have the skilled, precision passers - Backstrom especially - to get the puck over the the weak side. And there's Ovechkin waiting to receive a puck with lots of time for him to do what he does best. Just look at all the space and time he has in these goals.
I have an incredibly hard time believing that any coach in the NHL, AHL, KHL, or pond hockey would advocate for a plan which consistently leaves Ovechkin with that kind of time and space to put his full weight behind a shot and carefully pick a target. Especially when, in all of these scenarios, the puck is crossing Steve Valiquette's "Royal Road," meaning that Lundqvist has to move laterally and has little time to track the puck and set his body. It's a perfect storm for getting scored on consistently.
What Samuelsson and Alain Vigneault need to make a priority, clearly, is not giving Ovechkin that kind of time and space. How to go actually make that happen is the harder part.
In my mind - as well as John MacLean's, a former assistant coach in charge of the penalty kill for both the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes - the most simple solution is to just stick a forward on Ovechkin and turn it into a triangle-and-one defense. This will do two things. First, it's going to force Ovechkin out of his comfort zone. Via Sporting Charts, here is a heat map of where Ovechkin has scored his power play goals this season.
Stick someone on Ovechkin and he can no longer just hover around the left faceoff circle if he has any plans of getting open. Defending him would be rather easy if he just stayed in that one spot; the guy given the man-to-man assignment on him won't have to work very hard if he's just covering a seven-foot radius. Ovechkin will need to move around in order to make himself part of the play. But even if he does receive the puck behind the net or on the right wall, you've already taken him away from where he's most dangerous.
Sticking someone with the strength, speed and defensive acumen to keep up with Ovechkin (hello Rick Nash!) will limit Ovechkin's ability to contribute regardless of where he is on the ice, and thus the Rangers will have effectively turned the Capitals' power play into an Ovechkin-less four-on-three. Is that ideal? Not really. Four-on-three's are clearly more dangerous than normal power plays.
But it's a percentage play; the lesser of evils. The Capitals obviously own other talented individuals who can muster up some scoring of their own. But not nearly to the degree that Ovechkin does. Ovechkin led the Capitals (and NHL) with 25 power play goals this season. The next five highest-ranking Capitals COMBINED for 24 goals. In total, Ovechkin accounted for 41.7% of the Capitals' power play goals this season. To compare, Steven Stamkos accounted for 24.5% of Tampa Bay's, Tyler Seguin for 23.6% of Dallas', and Claude Giroux for 23.3% of Philadelphia's.
This would be a radical tactic; there's no doubt about it. And it would be a ridiculous plan in almost any other situation. But Alex Ovechkin accounts for an absurd number of Washington's power play goals, and when all is said and done he'll probably be viewed as the best power play scorer in the history of hockey. Special players call for special circumstances. Could it fail? Perhaps. But what the Rangers have been trying has inarguably not worked. It's not as if it could do much more harm than what the Rangers have already tried - and repeatedly failed - to employ against the Capitals. One of the easiest ways for the Rangers to lose this series is through special teams. It seems logical that blockading the player their power play is so plainly dependent on would be a wise move.