They say you can't get things done on Capitol Hill, but the Capital Kill has proven to be very diligent thus far in 2013-14. Penalty killing has rarely been a forte in the District in recent years. Over the last 11 seasons, the Washington Capitals’ penalty-killing outfit has finished 20th or worse in the NHL on nine occasions. Fifteen games into this season, it’s clear the Caps have made killing a priority.
After a 5-for-5 performance last night -- including three clutch kills in the third period -- Washington now owns the league’s top penalty killing outfit with a kill rate of 91.7% (54 kills in 59 tries).
“We’re definitely very proud of it,” says Caps right wing Eric Fehr, who started killing penalties regularly just last February. “Our PK hasn’t been our best asset on our team in years past and we’re trying to change that. We’re bringing a new energy to it and a new system and I think the guys have been following it to a tee.”
Washington’s remarkable run of 35 straight penalties killed without a goal against finally came to an end on Saturday night against the Florida Panthers with a 4-on-3 goal from ex-Cap Tomas Fleischmann. Prior to that tally, the Caps went three weeks and eight straight games without allowing a power play goal against. The last time the Caps went as many games without getting nicked for an extra-man tally was more than a decade ago.
“It’s outstanding,” exclaims goaltender Braden Holtby. “Especially based on where we came from last year, where our PK was with basically the same guys killing, it’s amazing what we’ve done. But the guys came into the season and really wanted to improve in that aspect. Hopefully we can keep it going. I don’t see us slowing down at all with it. We just want to keep building it.”
Last season was a struggle for the Capitals’ penalty killing corps, especially early in the season. The Caps dug themselves a hole they could never quite dig out of. Washington allowed multiple power-play goals in each of the first three games of the season and gave up at least one power-play goal in eight of its first 11 games of 2012-13. The Caps finished the season 27th in the NHL with a 77.9% kill rate, the team’s worst since 1984-85.
“Obviously it had something to do with last year,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer of the team’s renewed focus on its penalty-killing group. “We went through three-quarters of the season knowing that our PK was not helping us out at all. So this year it was a big focus at the beginning of the season. We wanted to have our PK and our PP in the top five, or at least in the top 10.”
As we noted in this space nearly a month ago, a couple of new philosophies were introduced to the kill. The Caps aim for more up-ice pressure and disturbance and – as much as possible – they kill with pairs of forwards who are also linemates at even strength.
“Guys have been real good,” says Brouwer. “I think it helps that our linemates on our regular shift are our PK penalty killing units, so you just have more familiarity and guys are talking. And we’re doing good things, like getting pucks down the ice that we didn’t last year. We’re winning a lot of draws in the d-zone, which gives us possession so we can kill off some of those early minutes.”
Another element that has contributed to Washington’s penalty-killing success is overall team discipline. The Caps have kept penalty killing missions to three or fewer in eight of 15 games this season, including a run of seven straight during their streak of eight games of penalty killing perfection.
“It is easier,” says Brouwer, of limiting the number of kills per night. “We use a lot of the guys on our PK a lot of minutes during the game. You never want to wear those guys out and wear those guys down as much as possible.
“I think the Winnipeg game was one of the games that we took a lot of penalties. Early in a road trip, that’s not what you want to do. And even [Saturday] at home [against Florida], we gave them three [power plays] in the first and that’s just asking to be behind after the first period and not being able to get any momentum in your own building.”
Fehr elucidates another reason for wanting to limit the penalty-killer’s exposure in a game, and it can be compared to a hitter in baseball getting more looks at a pitcher’s repertoire each time he faces him.
“I think that’s first and foremost the biggest thing for us,” affirms Fehr, “just staying out of the box. Obviously you get two or three in a period and the killers are tired, and it also gives the PP a chance to make adjustments on your PK. They get to see it and they get to react. There are so many skilled players in the league. When they see a PK and see the way it is going to play for two or three [power play] attempts, they can change things up and they can really expose you. I think that’s something that we’re going to have to work on going forward.”
That’s probably true. The Caps have played with fire in their last several games; they’ve gone down a man 22 times in the last four times and have been shorthanded at least five times in all of those games.
Assistant coach Calle Johansson – a skilled penalty killer in his own right during his own NHL playing career – took over the reins of the Caps’ penalty kill from former Caps’ assistant coach Tim Hunter late last season and started to get some results. The Capitals finished last season on a 23-for-25 (92%) kill run. They’ve started this season with similar success.
Dating back to last season, the Caps have now gone 27 straight games without surrendering multiple power-play goals in the same game, their longest such streak in three years.
“I think Calle has been a huge part of that,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “The dialogue has been unreal. We go back and forth and he takes what we say and we take what he says, and kind of put it all together and help each other out in that way. We change it up every game to what we need it to be doing. It’s been good and guys have been working hard, and blocking shots. But penalty killing all starts with your back end and your goalie, and when he is making saves in the back end that helps out a lot.”
Washington’s goaltending (.970 save pct.) has been otherworldly on the kill so far, and it won’t continue because it’s not statistically possible for it to do so. But the goalies are better than last season because the structure is better.
“This year,” says Holtby, “guys really know what we’re trying to accomplish on the PK. Everyone knows their job a lot more. I think last year there was a bit of confusion at times.
“We switched from Huntsy’s system which was basically go as hard as you can, you blocked as many shots as you could and you did whatever it took to keep the puck out, which worked for us; to a system where there was structure and the idea is to make [the opponent] fail and to force them to shoot it into you. It’s different and it took guys a while to realize they can’t go down to block shots. That was a big adjustment. But you can tell this year guys are getting more comfortable with it and using their skating to their advantage.”
Johansson’s two-way, hands-on approach involves a significant portion of the team, and includes regular video sessions focused on the power play tendencies of upcoming opponents. Viewing those tendencies can help tune a goaltender into where to expect second-chance shots to come from, and give him a slight edge in arriving at that spot before the puck does when those second-chance opportunities present themselves in a game.
“It’s all about knowing that you’re going to give up something on a PK,” says Holtby, “it’s just deciding where you want to give it up from is the biggest thing. And that has something to do with our goaltending, knowing where that shot is coming from for the most part. And if they’re going to make an amazing play, it’s going to be consistent with what they [usually] make so it’s not as much of a surprise as you’d get on some PKs where you are kind of flying round everywhere and breaking down. That’s the main difference.”
Without execution, the video is useless. And the Caps’ killers and their goaltenders have their shorthanded execution significantly since the start of last season. That has made all the difference.