Forward Tom Wilson was uncomfortable even talking about it, and assistant coach Scott Arniel had his fingers crossed on both hands. Any sort of streak makes hockey people superstitious, and a penalty kill can be especially precarious, never perfect for too long.
“We could have this conversation, and they could score next game,” Wilson warned.
As the Washington Capitals have racked up seven straight wins, their penalty kill has played a significant part, unbeaten in the past 16 times shorthanded over the past five games. But beyond this streak, the Capitals have steadily fortified their shorthanded play since the calendar turned to 2019.
On the season, Washington has the 21st-ranked unit with a 79.7 percentage, but it has killed off 83.3 percent of its penalties since Jan. 1, 10th-best in the NHL over that span. Since Feb. 1, the Capitals’ 87.3 percent penalty-kill rate is fifth in the league. Not coincidentally, Washington is 14-4-1 in that time, surging back to first place in the Metropolitan Division. What was a liability has become a strength.
“The rank doesn’t really matter,” Wilson said. “When you get to the playoffs, you have to feel good about your PK, you have to feel good about the group going out, and you have to try to get the job done. As we saw last year, there can be huge moments in games where it needs to get done, and that’s what we’re trying to build toward.”
As the Capitals close out the regular season with nine of their final 13 games against teams poised to make the playoffs, their penalty kill will be especially tested by some of the league’s best units, including the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top-ranked man-advantage Saturday. Washington’s two trade-deadline acquisitions, forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen, were intended to bolster the team’s shorthanded play — and they have — but the penalty kill’s surge is the result of the Capitals finding a better balance applying pressure in a system designed to be aggressive.
“I think early on, we were pressuring just to pressure,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We were a little reckless with it. And early in the year, that’s okay; we wanted to err on the side of being aggressive. I think we’ve just gradually figured out our trigger points on when to go. Because I really think there is a time to pack it in, and especially against certain teams, I think you can pack it in tight and force perimeter shots. That gives you a better chance for more success, and then there’s other times when you want to be more aggressive.”
Said Arniel: “When a player is looking straight at you with the puck on his stick and his eyeballs are looking right at you, that’s probably not a real good time to go and attack him. You want to get guys when the puck is on the yellow [along the boards]. We talk about off faceoffs and off entries, missed shots — those are the trigger points, and those are the times when we’ve got to be on our toes, ready to jump.”
While Coach Todd Reirden opted against changing much in his first season behind the bench, especially with the team coming off a Stanley Cup championship, the penalty kill was something he and Arniel overhauled. The start of the season featured auditions with Washington unsure of its personnel after losing center Jay Beagle — he logged 2:31 shorthanded per game last season — in free agency. The Capitals tried skilled forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky on the penalty kill, but those experiments ultimately failed.
Wilson and third-line center Lars Eller have been the team’s top shorthanded forward pair for most of the season, but with Wilson skating on the first line and on the second power-play unit, his minutes have to be managed to keep him fresh. The same can be said for top-six forwards T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom, who similarly play in all situations. That led to Reirden keeping wingers Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson in the lineup in large part because they could eat up some of that time on the penalty kill, though they weren’t contributing much elsewhere.
Where the additions of Hagelin and Jensen have helped most is in taking some of the shorthanded strain off other players while giving Reirden more flexibility with his lineup. In his eight games with the Capitals, Hagelin has averaged 2:43 shorthanded per game, making him Washington’s top penalty-killing forward. The 8:18 he played on the penalty kill Friday night against New Jersey marked the most shorthanded ice time for an NHL forward in a game all season.
He is now the first forward over the boards, along with fourth-line center Nic Dowd, which has lessened the load slightly for Wilson and Eller. Backstrom is down to roughly a minute shorthanded and Oshie is averaging around 30 seconds of penalty-kill time per game with Hagelin on the team. Most importantly, the Capitals have finally settled into more of a personnel routine.
“Tendencies and habits and predictability and stuff like that, you really depend on,” Wilson said. “You’ve got new guys and kind of a new system, it takes a little bit. I think we kind of reshuffled the deck a couple of times and found out what was working for us, this group.”
An ongoing issue is that the Capitals have taken the third-most minor penalties (248) in the NHL this season, and they have been called for 11 in just the past two games. As Washington has gotten plenty of practice of late, Arniel credited the team’s goaltending for extending this streak of perfection. And while even discussing it feels like tempting fate, there’s a certain confidence whenever the Capitals’ penalty kill takes the ice, something that couldn’t be said earlier in the season.
“I think everything is a process,” Backstrom said. “Things didn’t go our way the first 50, 60 games, but I feel like everyone is more committed now and we’re blocking shots and we’re working for each other.”