Last season, Washington’s penalty kill ranked 27th in the NHL — not quite championship caliber.
“If you want to go a long way in this league, you have to have good penalty killing,” Capitals General Manager George McPhee said during a TV interview before the Toronto game. “Sometimes that takes you farther than a good power play.”
That’s true. Since the 2005-06 season, six of the eight eventual Cup champions finished the regular season with a penalty kill among the league’s top 10. The other two, the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes, were ranked 16th and 19th, respectively, when they won their championships.
Over the same time frame just two of those Cup winners had power-play units good enough for a top 10 efficiency, while the other six champions sat in the middle third of the league. Which brings us back to Washington, where the Capitals have killed 79 of the 93 penalties faced (85 percent) this season, ranking seventh in the NHL. But can it last long enough for the team to raise the Cup? That depends on the goaltending.
Players and coaches often call the goaltender “our most important penalty killer,” and for good reason. An exceptional goaltending performance can overcome defensive breakdowns and quality chances against. In short: If goalies are stopping the pucks, the penalty kill looks good. So far, Neuvirth and Holtby have combined to stop 150 of the 164 shots they have faced (0.915 save percentage), an improvement over last season’s .868 save percentage and higher than the league average (.876).
That .047 improvement is critical. If a team takes the same 164 shots against Washington on the power play, but the netminders save just 87 percent of them, that’s a difference of seven or eight goals against. Those extra tallies turn the seventh best kill into one of the league’s worst. That doesn’t mean Washington’s goaltending can’t remain above average, but there have been studies done which show that the save percentage on the penalty kill is more than two-thirds luck. So a more pressing concern is the amount of shots the defense gives up when playing down a man.
The Capitals have surrendered 1.76 shots against each time they have been shorthanded this season. Only Buffalo (1.93), Dallas (1.89), Toronto (1.89) and Colorado (1.79) have allowed more. More shots mean more scoring chances, so if the Capitals want to go deep into the playoffs, they are going to have to find a way to start limiting opponents’ chances during the penalty kill.