The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capitals drawing momentum from penalty kill

(Candice Ward/USA Today Sports)

VANCOUVER — As the Washington Capitals went on a three-game tear – outscoring opponents, 14-4 – their high-powered offense got most of the credit. It was certainly deserved, but in those wins, the team has also drawn momentum from its defense, specifically the penalty kill.

The Capitals — who play late Thursday night in Vancouver — have been shorthanded 15 times this season, and they’ve given up just two power-play goals, an 86.7 penalty kill percentage that’s among the league’s best. Some of the success comes from familiarity with the system in a second season under Coach Barry Trotz and some comes from having more players involved on the penalty kill.

“We have a lot of new guys doing it, and so, I think we have more guys doing it this year than last year,” Trotz said. “We sort of got stuck on four or five guys, and we didn’t really deviate from that. I think we’re using a few more guys and a little deeper.

“Some guys are maybe going twice in the rotation and some guys are just going deep … There’s a little more understanding of how important the penalty kill is.”

In the small sample size of just five games, five forwards have logged at least six minutes of shorthanded ice time, though center Nicklas Backstrom, who regularly killed penalties last year, has played in just two games, so his minutes aren’t yet representative. Forwards Brooks Laich, T.J. Oshie, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Justin Williams and Backstrom play most often on the penalty kill unit.

Troy Brouwer played the most shorthanded time among forwards last season, and Oshie has taken his place in a penalty kill pairing with Laich. After Oshie played in the same penalty kill system for his entire career in St. Louis, he said a new one with different “pressure points” has taken time to adjust to.

Just as lines build chemistry the more they play together, certain forward pairs stay together for man-down situations. Laich killed penalties with Brouwer all of last season and he said they got to be “pretty in sync,” so he and Oshie are working toward the same point.

“A lot of it is who’s going to pressure and when,” Laich said. “Because we do have a set structure for almost anywhere where the puck is, there’s certain trigger moments when certain people activate and people fall to different positions. Just recognizing that on ice, and all that is repetition.

“T.J.’s only been five games now with me. … You see a couple more weeks go by, and you’ll see it’ll be a little faster. You won’t have to think so much. It’ll just be instinct, and that’s when I think your penalty kill can really take off and make a difference in games.”

It’s already started to have that affect. When the Capitals were nursing a 1-0 lead against the Hurricanes, they killed off 38 seconds of a five-on-three Carolina power play, a span the Hurricanes managed just one shot on goal.

On Tuesday night against Calgary, Washington was called for back-to-back penalties in the first period, when the Flames had a 1-0 lead. But Calgary tallied just one shot on goal in their two power play opportunities, never getting into a power play formation without being disrupted by Washington.

Laich called it “a very calming moment” for the team. The Capitals went on to tie the game shortly after and continued to pour it on for a 6-2 win.

“It’s huge,” Oshie said. “A lot of times in games, when maybe the puck isn’t going in, sometimes getting a penalty can almost be a good thing because the PK does such a good job. It’s such a big momentum lift, especially when you don’t get many good chances and you don’t get many shots.

“They get the puck in, you ice it, change and then the next group does the same thing. I think that builds a lot of momentum and we’ve got a couple different groups that can go, too, so I think that can turn momentum in a game in your favor for sure.”

Said Laich: “It makes us look strong and confident. After that, we sort of turned the game around. We were able to get a goal pretty soon after. Certainly, if we would’ve given one up, the game could’ve been a lot different at that time.”