Wednesday’s contest between the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins was decided by the narrowest of margins. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana both beat goalie Matt Murray, but were denied by the post and a late shot by Lars Eller trickled past Pittsburgh’s netminder and onto the goal line before getting swept away by a diving Marcus Pettersson. Pittsburgh eked out a 2-1 win with the game-winning goal coming off a bizarre play that saw the puck bounce around in the crease and into the net.
Both teams played an incredibly even game with neither side seemingly taking control over the course of 60 minutes. So what proved to be the difference in such a close game?
Washington largely held the Penguins’ power play in check, but gave up one goal on four power plays. The Caps, meanwhile, left empty-handed as they squandered all five of their power play opportunities.
Just one goal would have completely changed the game, but the power play was unable to take advantage.
“A couple too many failed entries,” John Carlson said of the power play. “I think we got some good chances, some good looks like we’re used to, but missing the net a little too much. We’re not putting it in the right spots if you’re not trying to score and those become easy clears for them where they don’t really have to work for them. Too many of those.”
The failed entries were the most glaring issue for the power play on Wednesday. When the Caps were able to get into the offensive zone and set up the power play, they were able to generate chances. The issue was just getting the puck to that end of the ice.
Whenever Washington tried to transition the puck up the ice, they were harassed by Pittsburgh’s penalty kill to such a degree that they struggled not just to get it past the blue line, but even to transition out of their own defensive zone.
“They pressured up ice and were able to disrupt our timing a little bit,” head coach Todd Reirden said.
That pressure gave the Caps fits. Two or three Caps players always looked to be ahead of the play while Pittsburgh sent forecheckers after the puck. The result was Washington looked outnumbered on its own power play as the forecheckers wreaked havoc on the few Caps players left behind looking to transition.
As Carlson revealed, however, this was partly by design.
“Against teams like that we’ve done in the past where we try to get above them and essentially have a three-on-two, four-on-two situation. We count on ourselves and rely on ourselves to execute those plays and it just didn’t happen tonight.”
Against aggressive teams like the Penguins, the Caps send in players ahead of the play to get in behind the forecheckers. That creates the opportunity for odd-man breaks once the players bringing the puck up the ice are able to get it past the forecheckers and up to those players.
That strategy backfired on Wednesday as Pittsburgh was able to undercut the breakout attempts and bottle up the power play in both the neutral and the defensive zone.
Clearly some adjustments are needed, but according to Carlson the main issue on Wednesday was just simple execution. They knew what Pittsburgh wanted to do and they had a plan in place to counter it, they just were not able to carry it out.
“We’d love to have everyone come back all the time, but it works both ways,” he said. “When we can get above, that's our main goal. To give ourselves four-on-twos, that's a pretty good opportunity when a team is that aggressive down ice. Tonight, [we] didn't execute.”
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