Washington Capitals search for answers on struggling penalty kill


Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun blocks the Oilers’ Magnus Paajarvi during Washington’s first loss of the season Oct. 27. (Ian Jackson/AP)
October 31, 2011

After watching video of the Washington Capitals’ foundering penalty kill during a team meeting Monday morning, defenseman Karl Alzner wanted to cover his eyes.

“It’s obvious when you see it,” Alzner said, shaking his head. “It’s embarrassing when you see it. It’s such a simple fix. It’s hard to put a finger on why you didn’t do it.”

A year ago, the Capitals’ penalty kill was one of the team’s strengths, ranking second in the league with an 85.6 percent effectiveness rate. But through nine games this season it’s scuffling at 77.1 percent, good for only 23rd. The unit was so porous on the team’s trip to western Canada last week — it yielded a total of four goals on 13 opportunities in Edmonton and Vancouver — owner Ted Leonsis weighed in on his blog, Ted’s Take.

“We have to get our penalty kill back to best in class,” Leonsis blogged. “In Vancouver, our penalty killing was subpar as well . . .”

The process of improving began with a 10-minute pre-practice video session and continued during 15-minute segment of Monday’s practice dedicated to penalty kill positioning.

One of the primary deficiencies the coaching staff has identified, Coach Bruce Boudreau said, is a lack of cohesiveness, likely borne out of unfamiliarity. Indeed, three of the team’s top six players in short-handed ice time are defenseman Roman Hamrlik and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern, all newcomers this season. Gone are Scott Hannan, Washington’s leader in average short-handed ice time a season ago, and Boyd Gordon, the team’s penalty kill faceoff specialist.

“Sometimes implementing new guys into the whole system, they’re struggling with the concepts a little bit,” Boudreau said. “Some are from different teams. Some didn’t force before as hard as we do.”

Said Halpern: “When it’s time to be aggressive, all the guys have to be aggressive. And when it’s not time, sit back. We have to make sure all four of us are on the same page and are executing what our game plan is.”

Additionally, the defensemen are still adjusting to playing in front of a new goalie, Tomas Vokoun. And vice versa.

“I know Vokie likes to see all the shots,” Alzner said. “If we’re in his way and we don’t block it, then he’s not going to like it. So we’re trying to figure out the right time to block it and the right time to let him see it. It’s tough to balance it right now. It’s different with [Michal Neuvirth]. If you’re in his way, you’re in his way.”

Another issue has been the unit straying from two areas that made it so effective a season ago: pressuring the puck carrier into poor passes and shots from the perimeter and blocking shots. The Oilers and Canucks put a combined 17 shots on Vokoun and Neuvirth while the Capitals skated short-handed.

“These guys are too good, especially the ones on the power play,” said Alzner, who is averaging the most short-handed ice time (2 minutes 42 seconds per game) this season. “You give them too much time, they are going to make plays. And if you are going to give them time, you had better be prepared to block absolutely everything. We didn’t do that. We did the two things that you can’t do wrong.”

There’s some hope the penalty kill could get some help soon in the form of veteran defensemen Mike Green and John Erskine. Green missed his seventh straight day of on-ice activity due to a right ankle injury but is “improving,” according to Boudreau, though he is expected to miss Tuesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. Rugged blue liner Erskine, meantime, is nearing his return from offseason shoulder surgery. Erskine said he hopes to get clearance for full contact as soon as Tuesday.

“People tend to forget that he’s a pretty good penalty killer and a deterrent in front of the net,” Boudreau said of Erskine.

Because the season is only three weeks old, there’s no sense of panic at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. But the consensus is that the penalty kill needs to show marked improvement starting against reigning MVP Corey Perry and the Ducks, who have converted only 13.3 percent (tied for 21st) of their power-play chances.

“We are making adjustments,” Boudreau said. “And we will get better with it.”

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