After the Capitals’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night, forward Tyler Graovac seemed conflicted as he stood in front of his locker room stall. Graovac had another strong showing in an effort to make Washington’s opening night roster; he scored the team’s only goal of the game and just the Capitals’ second five-on-five goal of the preseason.
But Graovac was unhappy with the other part of his audition. Playing on a top penalty-killing pair with forward Jay Beagle, Graovac was on the ice for two of the Devils’ three power-play goals in the first period.
“You have to take responsibility for it and you have to make the proper adjustments,” Graovac said. “For me, I want to take that opportunity and have that responsibility this year.”
With the NHL cracking down on slashing, the start to the regular season may feature a lot of penalties, as has been the case in exhibitions. That puts even more spotlight on a penalty kill that could still be a work in progress this time next week. The Capitals have two preseason games left to decide who will start the season on either side of Beagle on the fourth line. But figuring out who in the lineup should replace Daniel Winnik as Beagle’s regular penalty kill partner might stretch into the regular season.
“I think someone who anticipates well off of him,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s sort of key. It’s almost like a pair of defensemen; you want to have the ability to anticipate. Sometimes you put two guys together, and you think it should work and it really doesn’t. Then you put another pair together and they just instinctively work well together. Last year, Beags and Winnie were really good and Lars [Eller] and Tom [Wilson] had a little bit of chemistry [on the second unit]. That is going to be very, very important for us going forward, finding that next guy.”
Beagle has played in two preseason games, and in the first one, Washington paired him with Devante Smith-Pelly on the penalty kill. The Carolina Hurricanes won that game, 4-1, and in four power play opportunities, Carolina scored one goal, when Smith-Pelly and Beagle weren’t on the ice. On Wednesday night, the Devils had three power plays in the first 14 minutes, and they scored less than a minute into all three. Washington kept New Jersey off the board the rest of the game.
Washington’s penalty kill has been a source of strength for the team over the past two years, and Beagle has played a large part in that. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the Capitals have an 84.5 penalty kill percentage, third-best in the league, and Beagle has logged more than 337 shorthanded minutes in that span, which is more than any forward and third-most on the team. Winnik, now on a professional tryout with the Minnesota Wild, played with Beagle most in that role, and preferably one of Beagle’s new linemates will replace him.
“It’s easy to build off of and get chemistry with another guy when you’re killing with a guy and then playing five-on-five,” Beagle said. “It comes faster.”
T.J. Oshie and Beagle made a dynamic penalty-killing pair for a short stretch of games early last season, but it’s a lot to ask of Oshie to play in the top-six forward corps at even strength and then also take on top power play and top penalty kill responsibilities. While Oshie and center Nicklas Backstrom log shorthanded minutes, it tends to be just at the end of the penalty kill, which makes the transition back to five-on-five easier because Oshie and Backstrom play on a line together. Creating shorthanded pairs who also play together at even strength helps maintain line continuity in the shifts after a penalty kill.
Graovac seems to be a favorite to make Washington’s opening night roster because his play at five-on-five has been so strong, and it’s likely he gets another opportunity to penalty kill with Beagle. The two together would seem to be an advantage for the Capitals on faceoffs because both are natural centers and have opposite dominant hands.
“You know what, he’s a smart player, and I really just kind of feed off him,” Graovac said. “You just follow his stick and you’ve just got to fill the lanes and hold that to the intersection. I think there was a couple times where they didn’t really get to set up too many times, and that’s key for us. That’s something I liked to do on the PK when I played last year a little bit; if they can’t even set up, then that’s the best PK. I think we did a little bit of that, but unfortunately, tough start on the PK.”
Along with Graovac, forwards Nathan Walker and Alex Chiasson appear to be the front-runners to seize Washington’s depth forward openings, and they have experience killing penalties, too. Beagle said he likes to make note of who he has chemistry with in games, practices and scrimmages, but the pieces around him have rotated so much during this training camp that it’s been hard to handicap.
“We’ve still got some good players that are going to get an opportunity to showcase that next game,” Trotz said. “We’re going to have to make some decisions as we’re getting down to the short strokes with two games left.”
More on the Capitals: