By: Justin Creech
The Washington Capitals garnered much praise this past week for victories over the Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and the up-start Phoenix Coyotes. The Red Wings and Penguins have squared off in the last two Stanley Cup Finals while the Coyotes are currently fifth in the Western Conference Standings.
While the wins were impressive considering their opponents credentials, the Capitals ability to shut down their opponents’ power play was the most important, and impressive, factor in each win.
After allowing the Flyers two power play goals on five opportunities last Sunday, the Capitals’ penalty killers responded with perfect outings in the next three games going a combined 14 for 14.
“Yea, that was kind of one are that we needed improvement,” said Capitals’ defenseman Jeff Schultz. “It seems like this past week we really bared down on opportunities to get the puck out when we have it on our stick, or clear it out whenever we can. We know that if we can build off our PK’s it will help us down the road here.”
Washington’s penalty killers were 5 for 5 against the Red Wings, 4 for 4 against the Penguins and another 5 for 5 against the Coyotes.
The Capitals also killed a 5 on 3 disadvantage in the final minute of the second period on Saturday against the Coyotes with the Capitals protecting a 3-1 lead.
“We’ve killed timely penalties and we’ve killed penalties that just come throughout the course of the game,” said David Steckel. “I think for the most part as group we’ve done a good job at being more aggressive, not giving them time when they do get in the zone and getting pucks down the ice. It always helps when you can send the puck 200 feet and make them come through you again.”
One factor that aided the Capitals, as Schultz alluded to, was the team’s ability to clear the puck out there zone. The Capitals have struggled all season long clearing the puck out of there zone while on the penalty kill. Many of the power play goals the Capitals have surrendered this season are a direct result of their inability to clear the puck.
“I think sometimes we’re maybe trying to make a play instead of shooting [the puck] down the ice,” said Schultz. “Guys are maybe trying to go for those short-handed goals where sometimes it kind of backfires and comes back and hurts us. But, we addressed it in a meeting and we have to just keep up what we are doing.”
The Red Wings and Penguins entered their respective games against the Capitals ranked 17th and 26th respectively on power play percentage, a far cry from where both teams have ranked the last two seasons. However, Capitals assistant coach Dean Evason, who works exclusively with the teams’ penalty killers, said he told the team before each contest not to worry about where each team ranked on the power play, but to worry about who is on each unit.
“These guys are great, great players,” said Evason of the Red Wings and Penguins power play units “[Pavel] Datsuyk and [Henrik] Zetterberg then [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin. We really challenged our guys to get the job done and fortunately they were able to do it.”
Though they have been solid the last three games, the Capitals have been streaky on the penalty kill throughout the season. They currently ranked 20th in the league with an 80.1% kill rate, and have allowed at least one power play goal in 27 of 51 games played, including nine games in which they have allowed multiple power play goals.
Four times this season, the Capitals have allowed at least one power play goal in three straight games, but also have three separate occasions in which they have not allowed a power play goal in three straight games. The unit’s two worst performances this season came on October 6 when they gave up three to the Philadelphia Flyers and gave up a season high four to the Tampa Lightning on January 12. Evason is well aware of his units up and down play.
“It seems like we get one scored against us and then we have a little bit of a letdown and then we get the second and third one,” said Evason. “Let’s forget about the one, and if we can just let them go and after they score a goal in one game the next game we don’t necessarily have the confidence in the kills that we should have. So, that’s certainly an area we’ve talked to the group about as well.”
One way in which Evason and the Capitals coaching staff have thought about improving the penalty kill is using more of their skill players. Evason and the Capitals staff like this idea because it puts players with better stick handling skills on the ice which leads to pucks being cleared out of the zone faster. It also puts players on the ice that are familiar with how a power play unit is run.
“You’ve got to have some guys that can handle the puck and anticipate,” said Evason. “Nicklas Backstrom is one of our best penalty killers because he knows where the passes are going to go and he gets his sticks in those lanes before they even pass the puck.”
Though they were strong this past week, the Capitals know they most learn how to be consistent on the penalty kill if they are going to go as far as they want come playoff time.
“We talk about our goals against and our defensive game has to get better for us to be successful in the playoffs,” said Evason “And certainly the PK is a start of that.”