PHILADELPHIA -- It's looking as if the Flyers are sunk in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against Washington, and it has been the Capitals' power play that have fired the torpedoes. Washington scored a franchise-record five power-play goals in Game 3 in Philadelphia on Monday, giving it a 6-1 victory and a 3-0 series lead.
The Capitals power play was fifth overall during the regular season, at 21.9 percent, but it has hit another gear in the postseason. Through three games, they are 8-for-17 on PP opportunities, a whopping 47 percent success rate.
Somewhere, Adam Oates is smiling.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who took over for Oates ahead of the 2014-2015 season, has certainly made adjustments to include and highlight the new pieces he was given, most notably forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams this offseason. But the 1-3-1 power-play framework put in place by Oates in 2012 is still humming. It is designed to put players in constant shooting situations, and Oates used it first in New Jersey with Ilya Kovalchuk and then in Washington with Alexander Ovechkin.
As the name would imply, the 1-3-1 is just that; a defenseman, alone at the top of the zone, three players stretched across the circles above the faceoff dots and one on the goal line. The figuration creates four little triangles, or opportunities for players to cycle and find lanes for passes and shots, and causes penalty killers to focus on the middle of the ice, often leaving a wide man free for an open shot and creating a cluster of traffic in front of the net. The key, though, is using the right players in the right spots, and this is where Oates' genius carries through.
The 1-3-1 works only with the right shooters in the right positions. The Capitals' power play is run on the right-wing side of the ice, with two left-handed shots and a right-handed shot forming the triangle immediately to the goalie's left. The key is a brilliant, patient puckhandler working on the half wall, on the goalie's off side. In Washington, this space belongs to the left-handed shot Nicklas Backstrom, who quarterbacks the power play from the right-wing boards.
How good is Backstrom? In Game 2 against the Flyers Saturday night, he threaded a blistering pass through the legs of teammate Oshie onto the stick of super sniper Ovechkin, who scored on a one-timer from his customary spot in the left circle. It was, as they say, an Ovi Shot from the Ovi Spot. But despite covering so much ice, Backstrom's pass was so hard that Flyers goalie Steve Mason had zero chance to get from left to right.
Haven't seen that Backstrom pass? Here you go.
While Backstrom owns the half-wall, young Marcus Johansson, who has come into his own in 2016 and is an integral part of the Caps' power play, sets up shop on the goal line. He is also a left-handed shot. (Johansson also gives the Caps another fine option on entry, so Backstrom is no longer the only option to carry the puck into the zone. Focus on Backstrom, and Johansson will handle the puck, which means opposing teams are spread thin trying to defend their blue lines.)
Righty Oshie patrols the middle, with the right-handed Ovechkin in the left-wing circle and right-handed defenseman John Carlson at the top.
Backstrom and Johansson can play catch or trade spots, waiting for a seam to open. The goal is to get to Oshie, or Williams on the second unit, 18 feet from the goal in the high slot, for a one-timer.
"Williams and Oshie are both right-hand shots, which is perfect for a one-timer on a pass from the right side," said former NHL goalie Glenn Healy, who is now an analyst for SportsNet. "And if you take away that one-timer, the puck goes through to Ovechkin, which is great, too. And if you take him away, it goes to Carlson."
Most likely, if the options are such that the puck moves to Carlson, there will be a couple of Caps screening the goalie, in position for a tip. Twice that has happened against the Flyers. In Game 1, Carlson's snap shot ricocheted by two Flyers and two Caps before sneaking under Mason. In Game 2, Carlson held the puck high long enough for Oshie and Johansson to set up a double screen on a snap shot that Mason never had a chance of saving.
"It makes a big difference when the sticks match up," Carlson says. "It's huge for the way guys receive and shoot pucks and the way we can move the puck around. You don't have any bad situations."
The Flyers' power play is basically a mirror image of the Caps', a 1-3-1 run from the left-wing side of the ice with two righties and a lefty forming that bottom triangle. The right-handed, ever-patient Claude Giroux sets up on the half wall, with righty Wayne Simmonds at the goal line and lefty Brayden Schenn in the slot. Farther outside is lefty Jakub Voracek, with lefty defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere at the top of the zone.
The Capitals, though, simply have more skilled pieces of this power-play puzzle.
"The Flyers can park someone on Ovechkin, which you have to do, but the scoring threat is from 18 feet, in Williams and Oshie. They use their assets, in those two guys who are righties and the big bomb in Ovechkin. And if they overplay Backstrom, Johansson can handle the puck," said Healy. "The Capitals have so many options, but if Washington eliminates Giroux and Gostisbehere, [it] eliminates the threat."
Which, at the moment, is precisely the story.