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Caps Kill With Chemistry, Pressure

October 8, 2013

Here we are three games into another NHL season and with four days between games. Unless you’re one of those folks who enjoys extrapolating numbers from obscenely small sample sizes for the purposes of deifying or vilifying this player or that team, there’s not much else to do until the next game rolls around.


(That would be Thursday, against Carolina at Verizon Center, by the way. Tickets still available.)


Delving deeply into the numbers at this point is like calling an election with less than four percent of the precincts reporting. So you’ll pardon us if we opt to wait for a few more chapters in the 82-chapter saga to unfold before we draw too many conclusions or yearn for line and/or lineup changes.


Just like you, we’ve seen that the Caps are struggling at even strength and that their power play is hovering just shy of Walter White-level purity. (Okay, maybe not that high.) We haven’t heard or read much about the Capitals’ penalty killing outfit, though.


Washington has been successful on nine of its first 11 shorthanded missions this season. We won’t try to divine anything further from those narrow numbers. We won’t predict that the PK is going to be great or that it’s going to suffer.


What we will do is point out a few new wrinkles that we think could prove to be beneficial in the long haul. And we will also note that we believe the Capitals’ penalty-killing corps was a key factor in Washington’s lone win to date, a 5-4 come-from-behind shootout triumph over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 3.


After spotting the Flames a 3-0 lead, the Caps rebounded to pull within a goal at 4-3 late in the second of Thursday's home opener. Then, in a span of just over five minutes, Washington was whistled for three minor penalties in just over five minutes of game time. Included in that stretch was 47 seconds worth of two-man advantage time for Calgary.


With the game on the line, the Caps navigated their way through that span cleanly. The Flames managed just two shots on goal (the Caps had two of their own while shorthanded during the same span) on the man-advantage during that stretch of the game. Calgary missed the net once and had a couple of shots blocked as well.


“Yeah, that’s a big turning point in the game,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “If they score there, they stretch it out and it’s tough to come back. They also get some momentum and feel better. But the penalty kill has to do the job just the same as the power play does. The guys that are on both units take a lot of pride in it. You’re paid to execute and get the job done. That’s the expectation; you’re not hoping to get it done, you’re expecting to get it done.”


They got it done that night, and of course the Caps’ vaunted power play netted the equalizer later in the frame and Washington ended up with the two points that night.


The Caps’ penalty killing outfit was buried near the bottom of the league’s ledger for most of last season, finishing 27th with a 77.9% kill rate. While Washington’s power play unit was the best the league had seen since 1989-90, the Caps’ 2012-13 penalty killing crew was the worst the District had seen in nearly three decades, since 1984-85 (76.2%).


The penalty-killing personnel has changed a bit. Caps coach Adam Oates has opted to give top line center Nicklas Backstrom spot duty on the PK, and he has reinstalled fleet-footed winger Jason Chimera into the shorthanded mix.


“Right now I’ve been trying to use pairs,” says Oates, “get a couple of guys involved and free up guys for other minutes. Obviously Backy is a great penalty killer. But if I can save him a little energy from the stress of penalty killing, maybe he can help us a little more five-on-five. Maybe the other night [against Calgary] that’s why he scores on the PP; that shot’s a little better because he’s a little fresher.”


Backstrom’s power-play goal in the third was the one that tied the Calgary game. In just three games this season, Chimera has already spent more time in the ice in shorthanded situations than he did for the entire 48 games of 2012-13. As a guy who doesn’t figure into Washington’s power play picture, Chimera is happy to have those shorthanded minutes.


“You look at the minutes," says the veteran winger, "there is a lot of PK and a lot of power play because of the way [the officials] call the game. It’s nice to be involved. It keeps your legs in it and keeps you going. Even if you don’t get to touch the puck that often, it keeps you in the game and keeps your mind sharp. I think you’re a better player because of it because on the PK you have to concentrate and really buckle down out there.”


The pairs that Oates spoke of aren’t just random players, either. They’re guys who also play together at even strength. Laich and Troy Brouwer comprise one penalty-killing tandem. Chimera kills with linemate Joel Ward. And Martin Erat hops over the boards with Jay Beagle, at even strength and when the Caps are down a man.


“It’s good to get out there with a guy like Chimmer that I’ve played with,” says Ward. “And it’s good to be in set pairs with a guy you’ve played with and whose tendencies you know well. Hopefully we can get a few bounces and maybe get a chance or two and that confidence will carry over into our five-on-five play.”


“Every time when you play with a new guy, and especially a centerman,” states Erat, “the more time you spend on the ice together the more you find out about them. And the more you get used to them and learn what they’re going to do on the ice.”


In addition to the simple chemistry factor of killing penalties with even-strength linemates, there are a couple of side benefits. The Caps’ two penalty-killing forwards are always comprised of one lefty and one righty shot. That’s a built-in advantage.


“Yes, because then there is no blind spot for either guy,” explains Laich. “If you have a lefty-lefty, there is one guy that is on his backhand trying to clear a puck or make a share on his backhand. Whereas if it’s lefty-righty, you’re both sharing the puck on your forehand and you’re turning up ice and facing up ice rather than being blindsided a little bit.


“As much as we can, [we want to] try to use the pairs like that. And Brouw and I can communicate a lot and know when somebody is in trouble where the other guy is going to be to assist him. All those little factors like that should add into a successful PK.”


Deploying pairs from the same line also pays dividends after the team has returned to full strength. It results in less line chaos in the wake of the kill.


“It makes it easier,” says Brouwer. “Last year, me and Nicky would always kill together. So if one of us was on for the penalty and a little bit tired, then our rotation was off a little bit and you’d have to throw out other guys. I know Oatesy has his one-two-three pairings, and it’s nice when you’re able to roll them over coming into a penalty and actually coming out of a penalty as well. If you kill the penalty, then your lines are together and you don’t have to mix and match players to try to get your lines back together.”


If you’ve paid attention to the Caps’ penalty killing missions thus far this season, you’ve probably also noticed a difference in the way the Caps go about their business on the ice while they’re a man down.


Rather than lying back in the neutral zone and simply waiting for the opponent to come up ice, the Caps are diligently applying pressure up ice. There’s a fine line there; you don’t want to have two of your penalty killers pressuring deep in the opposition’s end only to be exploited by a long stretch pass to the far blueline.


“We’re just trying to disrupt breakouts,” says Brouwer. “Everyone who is on the PP on every team is a skilled player. If you give them time to make plays, they’ll make plays. We’re just trying to get up, make it so they have to stop and make it so their routes are thrown off a little bit and it’s a little bit more disorganized coming up the ice.


“If we’re not working in pairs, with one in and one out with the d-man up, a good player will be able to make a good pass and be able to catch you. So we have to be careful with that. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re not getting stopped and nobody is getting into a battle. You’re just kind of swinging in and swinging out, trying to disrupt as much as possible.”

Washington has a reasonable amount of team speed, and even as the oldest player on the team, Chimera remains one of the fastest guys in the league. The Caps believe their forwards can get in deep and apply pressure on the kill and still be able to get back and into good position to defend in their own end.


“We’ve got some pretty good skaters here,” says Ward. “A guy like Chimmer, there is no point in having him skate backwards. If you can utilize that speed and the good stick, we can get up there and try to pick off some passes and maybe create a chance or two. And obviously if you can score one shorthanded, it’s a big plus for your team.”


In their own end of the ice, the Capitals’ emphasis is on positioning, allowing their goaltenders to see the shots and relying on reads and trigger points to apply additional pressure.


“I think we’re trying to be a little more patient in-zone,” notes Chimera, “and not pressure too hard because we’re getting up ice a lot more and trying to disrupt their breakout. I think that helps out a lot. When they come out of their zone so cleanly, it’s hard to defend. But when you can disrupt their breakout and they’re not going in synch and guys are swinging all over the place, that’s when they get in trouble. We’ve almost had a couple of shorties because of it. That up-ice pressure is the biggest difference.”


It’s early. You can’t tell very much at all about line chemistry, power play prowess, even-strength ability (or lack thereof) or penalty killing ability. The early returns on the PK are good, but they’re just that: early returns.


“We haven’t given up too much,” declares Ward. “We’ve been pretty good so far. We gave up one against Calgary on a good shot off the half wall. Other than that, I think we’ve been pretty sound killing penalties and mixing in a block or two. But if we can disrupt teams in their own zone and make them spend more time there, obviously that’s beneficial for us.”


“It’s just one of the things we try to work on,” says defenseman John Carlson, the team’s most frequently deployed defenseman on the kill. “We feel that if we can stall their power play for five or 10 seconds in their zone – rather than just letting them get up the ice and try to squash them there – it’s great. I think it’s been helping us.”


Given the performance of the Washington penalty killing outfit over the truncated 48-game slate in 2012-13, it can’t hurt.