Caps take pride in their penalty kill
When you look at the Capitals roster and see Alex Ovechin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, it’s natural to think they should be near the top of the NHL in power play percentage every year.
And they are.
But having the No. 1 penalty kill? Now, that’s a horse of a different color.
Thanks to a 10-game streak in which they’ve killed off 39 of 40 penalties, the Caps have risen to the top of the league’s penalty killing standings with a 91.5 percent success rate [54-for-59].
There are several reasons why:
Patience: Under assistant coaches Dean Evason and Tim Hunter, the Capitals took a more aggressive approach on the penalty kill, attacking the puck when it went from the point to the halfwall and from the halfwall to the goal line. Now, under the direction of assistants Calle Johansson and Blaine Forsythe, they form a defensive box and stay stationary.
“Last year we were patient and aggressive at the same time, which kind of messed us up, I think,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “This year we’re pretty patient the entire time. Obviously, if there’s a bobble we’re going after it hard, but we’re trying to have teams beat us.
“Now, we pretty much give them all the time in the world and just try not to give them any [passing] lanes.”
Capitals coach Adam Oates said gambling on the penalty kill is counter-productive in a league where power play specialists are so skilled.
“If you’re too aggressive,” he said, “you’re giving up Grade A chances.”
Familiarity: Through the first 15 games of the season, the Caps have primarily used linemates Brooks Laich [45:06] and Troy Brouwer [39:23] on their first PK unit and linemates Jason Chimera [29:22] and Joel Ward [31:52] on their second unit. Both forward pairs play together at even strength, “so they know where each other is going to be on the ice at all times,” Oates said.
On the back end, Alzner [53:44] and John Carlson [62:28] play together at even strength, which makes them more effective as the first defensive unit. The same can be said for Steve Oleksy [29:34] and Alex Urbom [23:21], who play together at even strength and are the Caps’ second wave of defense on the kill.
Distributing the “hard” minutes: Everyone knows it’s physically draining to play the penalty kill and by designating those eight players as the Caps’ primary killers it relieves power-play specialists like Ovechkin [21 seconds], Backstrom [2:43] and Green [9:08] of hard minutes on the kill.
Last season Backstrom ranked third among Caps forwards in shorthanded ice time with 73:19 and Green was sixth among defensemen with 36:27. By keeping them off the penalty kill, Oates has provided his top offensive players with fresher legs at even strength and on the man-advantage.
“It’s big,” Brouwer said. “We have a lot of guys who don’t PK on this team and they know how tough it is to go out there and block shots because there’s some pretty heavy shots back there a guy’s got to stand in front of.
“A guy will get a pat on the back and a cheer just as big for blocking a shot or making a good defensive play as he would for scoring a goal.”
Practice: This isn’t necessarily a good thing. The Capitals have been shorthanded 59 times this season, an average of four times a game. Only eight NHL teams have been shorthanded more often this year.
Green leads the Caps with eight minor penalties, followed by Ovechkin, Oleksy, John Erskine and Tom Wilson with six each. Marcus Johansson and Marty Erat are the only two regulars who have not been assessed a penalty this season.
“Too many penalties,” Oates said.
“We’ve taken way too many in the past couple games,” he said, “but it’s nice to know we have that confidence.”