Capitals won’t retool struggling penalty kill

January 6

The Caps don’t want to worry about traffic in front as much as preventing shots from getting through. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

While Washington’s penalty kill has been in decline over the past several weeks, don’t expect the team to reinvent how it approaches shorthanded situations.

The Capitals choose to accept traffic at the top of the crease as a fact of the situation. Rather than devote a penalty killer to trying to force away that net-front presence Washington wants outward pressure that, in theory, limits opposing power plays to long-range shots that are easily blocked or deflected away before it even reaches the net.

“You have no choice. That sounds good: Move it out. You can’t,” Coach Adam Oates said of the traffic. “To move a guy out requires one guy and if you watch every single team, say Boston they’re the best year in and year out. They’ve got [Zdeno] Chara they’re capable of moving guys out they don’t. You can’t. Once a guy gets position there if you try and move him out then you’re leaving guys open to occupy that. It’s better to front pucks at that point when it goes side to side. What you’re trying to do is dictate to a side, so the weak side guy can maybe go get position on that guy.”

It’s a fine strategy, except if the penalty killers aren’t able to prevent the shot from getting through the goaltender is left fight off a puck they can’t see because of the traffic in front.

That’s what happened in the unit’s latest breakdown, a 2-for-5 performance in Saturday’s 5-3 loss at Minnesota. Each of the Wild’s first two power play goals were both point shots by Ryan Suter making their way on net where Braden Holtby was unable to see the puck because of 6-4, 220 pound Dany Heatley in front of him.

“The way the game is these days you’ve almost got to leave the guy and let Holtsy play them and get the rebounds after,” said John Erskine, who was on the ice for the second Minnesota power play goal. “It’s a tough play. You don’t want to get in front and have two guys in front.”

Minnesota’s third power play goal was certainly a fluky play as the puck bounced off multiple sticks in front. But it still began with a long-range – less dangerous — shot from the left point by Keith Ballard before Jason Zucker, who had found space between the Capitals’ forwards and defense on the penalty kill, chipped it in the slot.

The Capitals have allowed 268 shorthanded shots on goal this season, more than every other team in the NHL except the Toronto Maple Leafs (272). While Washington’s penalty killers believe they’re doing a sound job of limiting opponents to shots from distance rather than quality scoring chances, but they know more can be done to prevent pucks from reaching the net.

“I find that they’re getting a lot of shots through. It’s not always the big boomers that are hurting us, it’s the little floaters,” said Karl Alzner, who has 18 of the Capitals 101 blocked shots on the penalty kill this season. “I think we just need to do a better job of getting in the lanes and blocking more, but I don’t think we block enough shots. We don’t want to have to block them out of desperation and get taken out of position for it, but we do need to step in front of a few more shots.”

But the Capitals simply can’t allow both the traffic in front to occur and for the shots to get through. That makes for ugly nights like the one in Minnesota.

“It’s one or the other,” Alzner said, “If you can’t do both.”

>> Neither Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth nor veteran winger Martin Erat were named to the Czech Republic’s team for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Both players were considered to be in the mix to make the squad when the season began but given their limited roles in Washington — Erat is currently playing on the fourth line and Neuvirth has been a healthy scratch for 10 straight games — their omission is not surprising. Neuvirth and Erat have both requested that the Capitals trade them because of their lack of playing time.

Check out the full Czech roster here.

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Katie Carrera · January 6

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