After three games of the Eastern Conference Round 1 series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, the Flyers have dug themselves a daunting three-games-to-none hole. There are a number of reasons for the team's struggles -- lack of scoring from key players, poor goaltending, an ineffective power play -- but none looms larger than the complete collapse of Philadelphia's penalty kill unit.
Washington has scored on eight of their 17 power play opportunities, for an unreal 47.05% efficiency rate. For reference, the best season-long power play in NHL history was the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, and they only reached a 31.88% mark.
And it's not just goals allowed. The Flyers' penalty killers are also bleeding shot attempts, allowing an average of 155.7 per sixty minutes of play, a mark that would have been the worst in the league during the regular season by a whopping forty attempts. Washington isn't just scoring because their power play shooting percentage is at a sky-high 28.6 percent rate. They're also bludgeoning the Flyers with constant attempts on goal. The result has been a total disaster that truly is costing Philadelphia any chance in the series.
But why has the Flyers' penalty kill been so inept? What are they doing wrong that is allowing the Capitals to run roughshod on all of their power play opportunities?
Understanding the Flyers and Capitals' formations
An effective penalty kill is made up of two aspects -- forechecking meant to prevent the opponent from getting set up on the attack, and defensive zone positioning. While the Flyers' PK forecheck in this series has been far from perfect, the larger issue has been poor shot suppression in the defensive zone, so this article will focus on that.
In order to break down Philadelphia's defensive zone issues, it helps to first map out exactly where each player is positioned on the ice during a penalty kill. We'll start with the Flyers' base formation.
This is a pretty standard base formation for a penalty kill. The Flyers have one forward up high (the "F1"), a second forward slightly lower (F2), and then the two defensemen are the lowest, with the "D2" primarily responsible for dealing with an opponent's net-front presence. Penalty kills can shift mid-play (the F1 and F2 can switch spots, for example), so it's easiest to view the F1 as whichever forward is highest in the zone and the D2 as the lowest defenseman. The other roles then easily slide into place.
Now, let's look at the the same diagram, except with the Capitals' preferred power play formation included.
The Capitals use what is called a 1-3-1 formation, the same setup as the Flyers' top power play unit. It positions one defenseman high, three players cutting across the middle of the offensive zone parallel with the blue line, and then a man down low. To view this in real life terms, here are the players on Washington's top unit that match up with the acronyms on the diagram:
D1: John Carlson
D2: T.J. Oshie
F1: Nicklas Backstrom
F2: Alexander Ovechkin
F3: Marcus Johansson
With the specifics of both teams' formations out of the way, now we can address how the Flyers penalty kill is failing so miserably in containing the Capitals' chosen 1-3-1.
Issue #1: Flyers' F1 complete lack of aggressiveness in disrupting Backstrom and Carlson
So far in this series, Capitals defenseman John Carlson leads all Washington players with five power play points (three goals, two assists), while Nicklas Backstrom is tied for second with four points. That's not surprising when you analyze the tape -- both are being given way too much space to operate with the man advantage.
Let's start by looking at a still frame from the second period of Game 1.
We can learn a lot about Philadelphia's plan to defend against the Washington PP just by looking at this picture, which shows Nicklas Backstrom (the Capitals' F1) holding the puck on the half boards. The Flyers' D1 is clearly playing the pass to Johansson, trying to prevent Backstrom from cycling the puck down low while also closing off Backstrom's shooting lane. D2, on the other side, is watching Backstrom but also shadowing Alex Ovechkin, staying in line between the Capitals' sniper and Steve Mason to block a possible shot.
Philadelphia's F1, the closest penalty killer to Backstrom, is mostly defending against a possible pass to T.J. Oshie in the slot, allowing Backstrom to easily pass the puck to John Carlson, who is out of frame but positioned at the top of the offensive zone as the D1. The Flyers' F2 is in line with Carlson, sitting right in the middle of the slot, ostensibly ready to block a slapper from the point if Backstrom chooses to pass to the defenseman.
The problem? Nicklas Backstrom, who led all NHL players in power play assists this season, is not under any pressure whatsoever. Philadelphia's F1 (in this case VandeVelde) is so concerned with staying in the middle that he is giving Backstrom all the time in the world. And as the rest of this play shows, that passive approach extends to shadowing both Carlson and Ovechkin, as well.
Backstrom easily passes to Carlson, who also faces no pressure from VandeVelde. But where the passive approach from the F1 really buries VandeVelde is once Carlson moves the puck to Ovechkin. Schultz alertly moves up to challenge Ovechkin, forcing him on his heels. Yet VandeVelde does almost nothing. An aggressive play would be to converge on the F2 (Ovechkin) along with Schultz, forcing him to make a pass under pressure and possibly cause a turnover.
Instead, he hesitates before eventually deciding to try and prevent a pass back to Carlson. This gives Ovechkin all the space he needs for a cross-ice pass to Backstrom, and then the Flyers are in chaos. Now, both forwards are far below the circles and out of position, giving Carlson space to move up into the high slot and blast a shot at Mason, with both Oshie and Johansson in position for potential deflections.
Just ten minutes later in Game 1, we see another example of poor F1 penalty killing pressure giving Backstrom too much space and too many options.
This one is frustrating because it's tough to see what value the Flyers' F1 is even providing. Capitals F1 Backstrom again has the puck on the half boards, with two viable options -- a pass up high to Carlson, or a riskier (but still very possible) feed down low to Oshie (D2) via a wide open lane. Philadelphia's F1 (again VandeVelde) chooses not to pressure Backstrom directly, nor position himself in between Backstrom and Carlson to disrupt a possible pass, nor get in between Backstrom and Oshie. He basically just stands there, part of the scenery and doing nothing to contain Backstrom aside from preventing him to skate to the top of the faceoff circle.
At this point, if you're VandeVelde, why not attack Backstrom directly? You're clearly not willing to go high enough to disrupt a pass to Carlson, and you're trusting that either your D1 or F2 is covering Oshie. Instead, he allows Backstrom to get the puck to Carlson, who quickly feeds Ovechkin for a one-timer.
The passive play of the Philadelphia F1 persisted in Game 3. Here is another missed chance for the F1 (Bellemare, in this case) to put pressure on Backstrom.
The coverage elsewhere is fine. The F2 (VandeVelde) is taking away the cross-ice pass and shadowing Oshie in the slot. D1 (Streit) is also covering Oshie, while staying prepared for a pass down-low to Washington's F3 (Johansson) and in Backstrom's shooting lane. Backstrom has one play here -- pass the puck to Carlson. It's the perfect time for Bellemare to aggressively pursue Washington's F1, as the worst-case scenario is that he gets the puck to Carlson anyway. The fact that Bellemare instead chooses to just allow Backstrom to flip the puck to Carlson leads me to believe that he is under specific direction to play conservative as the F1 on the PK.
The complete absence of pressure from the Flyers F1 is causing two major issues. First, it's giving Backstrom and Carlson all the time in the world to play catch with the puck, without having to worry about puck pressure from Philadelphia. Second, it's forcing the Flyers' positioning to be perfect. They can never lose sight of a Capital lower in the zone, or else a wide-open Backstrom or Carlson is nearly certain to find him.
Issue #2: Double teams don't work on penalty kills when you're already down a man
It's clear that the Flyers' penalty killers have placed a heavy emphasis upon stopping two players -- Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie. They were Washington's top scorers on the power play during the regular season, so the inclination is understandable.
Against Ovechkin, Philadelphia has used their D2 (usually Nick Schultz) to shadow the Russian sniper at all times. Throughout the series, he's cheated over to block a number of Ovechkin shots, and while the league's leading scorer does have two PP goals in the series, he hasn't been the focal point of their attack.
Philadelphia has also worked to take away T.J. Oshie. The 29-year old forward was second on the Capitals in the regular season with 11 power play goals, playing in the D2 spot in the slot. The Flyers have used both their D1 and F2 penalty killers to constantly disrupt Oshie in the middle of the ice. Unfortunately, both strategies have their drawbacks, especially the tactics used to slow Oshie.
On this play, the Flyers' fixation with preventing a pass to Oshie ends up making it easier for Washington to get the puck to (who else?) T.J. Oshie. At the 14:10 mark of the third period in Game 1, Backstrom has the puck again as the F1, and the Capitals are totally set up in their formation. He is staring down Oshie, but Philadelphia has two players preventing a direct pass -- the F2 (Bellemare) and the D1 (Streit). Bellemare is also blocking a cross-ice pass to Ovechkin, and Streit is trying to stay in Backstrom's shooting lane, but it's clear that Washington's F1 cannot move the puck directly to the D2 (Oshie).
But what he can do is send it to Johansson, who Streit is leaving wide open for a pass down low. Immediately after receiving the puck, Johansson gets it right back up to Oshie, completely bypassing the double-team and creating a high-danger scoring chance. By worrying too much about Oshie and not enough about Johansson, the D1 (Streit) essentially gave Washington the perfect situation to set up Oshie in the slot.
The same issue arose in Game 3. This time, it was the Flyers' F1 and D1 who eschewed puck pressure in favor of cutting off a pass to Oshie, only to see their poor positioning result in exactly what they were trying to prevent. The start of this play would have been the perfect time for one of Bellemare (F1) or Streit (D1) to directly pressure Backstrom, since Washington's F3 (Johansson) is battling with the D2 in front and not available for a pass.
Instead, they both only care about preventing a direct pass to Oshie. Once Johansson shakes loose, it's far too simple for Backstrom to just flip the puck down low to him, and Johansson then can bypass the Flyers' double team of Oshie entirely. Washington's D2 whiffs on the shot in the slot, but that doesn't excuse Philadelphia's tactical error.
The temptation to key on Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie -- Washington's best power play snipers -- is alluring. And you could argue that the Flyers have succeeded at that to a degree, as the focal points of the Capitals' man advantage have been Backstrom, Carlson and Johansson. The problem is that those remaining three are more than talented enough to take a penalty kill apart, especially when they are essentially playing three-on-two.
Combine the focus on Ovechkin and Oshie with the complete lack of puck pressure on Backstrom and Carlson, and you have a recipe for penalty killing disaster. Essentially, you're praying that the latter two players make mistakes on their own, rather than actively creating a situation where those mistakes can be forced. Backstrom and Carlson instead have been at their best, and they've buried the Flyers.
Can the Flyers fix this?
After three games, it's abundantly clear that Philadelphia's current penalty killing strategies in the defensive zone are not working. Unfortunately, the coaching staff has shown no willingness to ramp up the puck pressure despite the deluge of Capitals power play goals.
There are tactics that the Flyers could employ in an attempt to take away time and space for Backstrom and Carlson. One such option is called the low-high press, which would specifically attack Washington's F1, Backstrom.
In the low-high press, the Flyers' D1 would directly pressure Backstrom, preferably as soon as he receives a pass and is still settling the puck. The Philadelphia F1 would move to cut off a potential pass from Washington's F1 to the D1, slowly converging on F1 if a puck battle is created. D2 would cover the Capitals' F3 (Johansson), while F2 would be tasked with shadowing Oshie and deflecting a possible cross-ice pass to Ovechkin (F2).
Are there risks to this strategy? Sure. Philadelphia's F2 could lose Oshie, or allow a pass to Ovechkin. Maybe Backstrom reacts and quickly slides the puck up to Carlson. But do these outcomes seem much worse than what Washington is already doing to Philadelphia against the current tactics? Carlson is wide open anyway, because the Flyers' F1 is not putting any pressure on Backstrom or Carlson. Oshie is getting his chances whenever the Flyers try to double team him, because Johansson gets left wide open when the right side of the PK is shadowing Ovechkin.
At least a move to a more aggressive penalty killing strategy would throw new looks at a Washington attack that is totally in its comfort zone right now. But despite three games of watching his penalty killers sit back and be taken apart by the Capitals' power play, Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere has yet to make any real adjustments. Facing a 3-0 deficit in the series, it's beyond time to pull out all the stops and try something new.
Theory on Philadelphia's strategy and Conclusion
The Flyers' lack of pressure up high and overemphasis upon containing Oshie and Ovechkin are both viable reasons for the disastrous performance of the team's penalty kill in this series. But while the explanations help to illuminate the "how" of Philadelphia's poor shorthanded performance, they do nothing to shed light on the "why." What thought process led the Flyers' coaching staff to this strategy?
Here's a theory. The Flyers identified Ovechkin and Oshie as the key power play threats that needed to be neutralized in this series, due to their strong scoring totals in the regular season. As a result, they engineered a defensive zone strategy focused upon limiting their opportunities to shoot. The D2 (usually Schultz) was tasked with cheating to his right to anticipate and block as many Ovechkin shots as possible. Both forwards in the formation were instructed to guard the cross-ice pass from Backstrom to Ovechkin to further minimize the latter's impact.
As for Oshie, the Flyers worked to have two men on him at all times to prevent a one-timer from the slot. Ideally, the higher penalty killer on Oshie would be able to simultaneously defend against the cross-ice pass to Ovechkin as well, in a way double-teaming both Oshie and Ovechkin with the same player.
But the only way to pull off this plan would be to direct the F1 forward on the penalty kill to stay close to the slot, losing any ability to pressure either Backstrom or Carlson effectively. Cut off from passing to Oshie or Ovechkin, Backstrom would be left with only John Carlson as a target, and it's fair to call Carlson the least dangerous offensive player on their PP.
This helps to explain Dave Hakstol's mid-Game 3 comments (via NBCSN) regarding the PK's struggles, when he noted that the Capitals were simply getting shots through lots of layers. If the plan truly was to put a spotlight on Carlson as the primary trigger man, Hakstol's frustration that the point shots were getting through is totally understandable. Washington were doing exactly what he had hoped they would do, yet still flourished on the scoresheet.
The results of Games 1 through 3 have shown that, if this was the strategy of the Flyers' coaching staff, it's certainly not working as planned. Carlson has been maybe the Capitals' most valuable player, consistently getting shots through traffic and on net from the point. The Oshie elimination strategy hasn't even worked, due to poor execution on the part of the Flyers' D1 and D2, who cannot stop Marcus Johansson from receiving passes and finding Oshie himself.
And then there's the biggest fundamental flaw -- the strategy completely underrates the talents of Nicklas Backstrom. He has the highest 5-on-4 points per 60 minutes in the NHL over the past three seasons for a reason, and he's truly one of the league's top power play quarterbacks. By not pressuring Backstrom, the Flyers are letting him take apart their penalty kill through accurate passes and fantastic decision-making.
Regardless of the reasoning, the Philadelphia coaching staff needs to make serious changes to the penalty kill for Game 4. It may be too late to win them the series, but it would at least show that they recognize when a strategy is failing and needs to be adjusted.