By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009
During a longer-than-usual practice yesterday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau went to work on the deficiency he believes is standing between his team and elite status in the NHL: its woeful penalty kill. With the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings bringing their league-leading power play to Verizon Center this afternoon, Boudreau's tweaks will be put to the test immediately.
Although the Capitals' coaching staff would not detail the specific tweaks that were made, the biggest difference maker, Boudreau and assistant coach Dean Evason acknowledged, likely will have little to do with tactics and everything to do with personnel, specifically the return of Tom Poti. The veteran defenseman, who is set to play after a 15-game absence because of a groin muscle pull, is the Capitals' best defensive defenseman at even strength and a must-have when short-handed.
"Obviously Tom is a guy who has killed in this league and is a veteran guy that we've relied a lot on," said Evason, who oversees the penalty kill. "Anytime a penalty kill is good, you to have a steady, rock of a guy back there."
While the Capitals' seeming inability to stay out of the penalty box -- they've taken the fifth-most minor penalties in the league -- has exacerbated the problems, the fact remains that the penalty kill has not often enough been able to bail them out when down a man or two. The unit has yielded at least one power-play goal in each of the past nine contests and has plummeted to 24th in the league. The most common failure has been the inability to clear the puck when it's on a player's stick, which leads to long shifts, tired legs and, ultimately, goals against.
Although the Red Wings have lost four in a row (0-3-1), their vaunted power play converts at a staggering 27.7 percent rate.
That's where Poti's experience, stick skill and cool under pressure should provide a major boost. Poti averages 4 minutes 17 seconds of short-handed ice time per game, 36 seconds more than David Steckel. With Poti back in the lineup, the Capitals will have their full complement of players for the first time since Nov. 6.
"Helping the team on the penalty kill is obviously one of my strengths and trying to help some of the problems we've had," said Poti, who has been sidelined three times for a total of 26 games because of groin injuries. "Right now I'm pain free, ready to rock."
Before practice, the coaches reviewed video with the penalty killers. Afterward, Evason emphasized a number of points, including the need for more composure and better communication.
"It's a combination of everything [including] not having the wherewithal to calm down and make a solid play," Evason said of the penalty kill, which has snuffed out only 78.5 percent of the short-handed situations faced. "It's also the fact that we're a very quiet hockey club. In today's game, players are on you so quick. If one of our guys has the puck against the boards, they can't see someone coming. A lot of time we don't help each other out by yelling, 'Chip it here' or 'Throw it behind the net.' Today we were yelling at them to talk and communicate with each other. That helps."
Something else that could help the Capitals' cause today as they attempt to snap a two-game losing streak: The Red Wings are expected to be without at least two key ingredients on the power play in Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg and possibly a third, Jiri Hudler.
According to reports out of Detroit, Holmstrom is nursing a sore groin muscle and Zetterberg, who earlier this week signed a 12-year, $73 million contract extension, is suffering from back spasms. Hudler is questionable because of a foot injury. The three have combined to score 20 of the Red Wings' 57 power-play goals.
But even if all three are out, Detroit's power play remains stout thanks to two of the best offensive defensemen in the game, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen up front.
The Red Wings "make it tough for the goalie to see the puck, and they get such good shots from the point -- they shoot around guys," Steckel said. "And they've got two skilled guys off to the side of the net. They can beat you any which way they want to. So we have to make sure we're sacrificing the body and getting pucks down 200 feet."