As the playoffs approach, Washington Capitals look for needed improvement in the penalty kill

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; D03

The Washington Capitals sit atop the NHL standings and rank first in goals and power-play efficiency, but with 16 games remaining before the start of the playoffs, two other numbers have the coaching staff concerned: 78.5 and 56.

That's the Capitals' penalty kill percentage and power-play goals against, figures that have sunk to 25th and 28th in the league, respectively, after a slump in which the unit has permitted 13 power-play goals in the past 10 games. The problem is even more pronounced on the road, where the penalty kill's 72.7 percent effectiveness is better than only Toronto.

For comparison's sake, San Jose and Chicago -- the teams right behind Washington in the NHL standings -- have the second- and fifth-best penalty kill units.

Washington's woes were underscored Monday in a 4-3 shootout loss to Dallas. The Stars' 19th-ranked power play went 2 for 2, faced little resistance entering the offensive zone, used long crossing passes to get the Capitals' penalty killers scrambling, then scored on shots from distance. Both times, a Washington defenseman screened goaltender Semyon Varlamov while attempting to clear a Stars forward from the crease.

"The bottom line is there isn't a pattern [because] it's not like there's one area," said assistant coach Dean Evason, who is the primary architect of the penalty kill. "It's a combination of all of it."

Searching for solutions, Evason, head coach Bruce Boudreau and assistant coach Bob Woods met at Kettler Capitals Iceplex during the Olympic break. They watched, then replayed each power-play goal the Capitals have surrendered this season.

One of the issues they identified was the penalty killers' tendency to get down on themselves after allowing a goal, which invariably leads to more breakdowns.

"We have to be mentally tougher, be defiant," Boudreau said.

Evason added: "It seems like when we give up a goal, we give up two or three. Certainly mental makeup or our mental strength has to get better."

The inability to refocus appeared to plague the Capitals against the Stars, whose power-play goals came 3 minutes 13 seconds apart early in the third period. In fact, in the 36 games the Capitals have allowed a power-play goal, they've surrendered more than one in 17 of them.

Another area of concern was the relative lack of "sacrificing the body," locker room lingo for throwing oneself in front of a speeding puck.

"I look at all the great penalty killing teams like the Rangers and you can barely get a shot through from up top because they are ready to block shots all the time," Boudreau said.

The Capitals did not work on the penalty kill during Tuesday's practice, but Boudreau said it will be the focus of Thursday's on-ice and video sessions. It will also give them an opportunity to fully integrate newcomers Joe Corvo and Eric Belanger, who have taken short-handed shifts since being acquired last Wednesday.

There's hope within the organization that Belanger, a two-way center who played for Minnesota under defensive specialist Jacques Lemaire, will provide a significant boost.

Belanger and Corvo, speaking as relative outsiders, said Washington could benefit from putting more pressure on the opposing players and, thus, forcing them to beat the Capitals with deft passes or perfectly placed shots.

"Maybe we can put some more pressure on them and not let them stand around and make passes," Corvo said. "That's what we did in Carolina."

Belanger said, "From what I've seen, we're a little bit more passive here."

Belanger also said he has noticed a lack of confidence among the Capitals' penalty killers.

"When you're struggling in an area of the game, instead of moving and reacting, you're thinking and reacting," he said. "If you go through a stretch where you're killing every penalty, then the confidence will be back."

Time, though, is running out for the Capitals. The playoffs begin next month, and as they learned last spring, a leaky penalty kill in the postseason can sink a team.

"Against the Rangers, our penalty kill gave us an opportunity to win that series. Then, against the Penguins, our penalty killing wasn't as good and it contributed to us losing the series," said Evason, referring to the Capitals' 87.1 percent rate (four goals on 31 opportunities) against the Rangers and 73.5 percent rate (nine on 34) against the Penguins. "You would like to see [better] numbers [now]. But what we want to do with 16 games left is get it right so that we can win in the playoffs."

Capitals note: Right wing Dmitry Kurgryshev, a 2008 second-round draft pick, has signed a three-year entry level contract.

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