But don’t forget, when you decide to go, to make sure you’re playing with controlled aggression. If the opposing power play is content with playing on the outside, know when to make your move. If they are creeping in, make the correct read and you’re given the green light to attack.
“We’ve done a good job at getting our looks and knowing the right time to attack and try to score and there are other times when we need to get our bodies off the ice and get fresh ones out there,” said Capitals assistant coach Scott Arniel, who is in charge of the penalty-killing unit. “The guys have been very good in that department.”
While the Capitals lost penalty kill stalwarts Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in the offseason, they found skilled penalty killers with Carl Hagelin, who was acquired at last year’s trade deadline; Garnet Hathaway; Radko Gudas; and Jonas Siegenthaler, who has a much bigger role. Siegenthaler, Gudas and Hagelin lead the team in shorthanded ice time, and the tweaks in personnel and the system have the Capitals’ unit clicking.
In 17 games, the Capitals’ penalty kill ranks eighth in the league at 85.7 percent. Since Oct. 29, the Capitals have killed off 15 of 17 power plays (88.2 percent). Through the same amount of games last year, the Capitals were ranked 28th in the leagueat 72.7 percent.
The improved efficiency began after the Capitals acquired Hagelin; the penalty kill ranked 13th in the league during the final 22 games of 2018-19. Washington ultimately finished 24th in the NHL at 78.9 percent.
In the Capitals’ 5-4 overtime win Thursday against the Florida Panthers, the unit allowed only one goal despite being forced to kill off back-to-back penalties twice in the second period. The one tally finally came on the fourth kill of the night.
“It starts with the mind-set, guys that really want to kill and do it for the team and take pride in it, and I think it starts there,” Hagelin said. “Then once you start feeling good and the season rolls on, you need your goalie to make key stops on the PK and sacrificing your body.”
The Capitals entered last season seeking to be more aggressive on the penalty kill, but they soon realized at times that meant they were too aggressive, which ended up with opportune chances for opposing power plays. Arniel described the unit as “all over the map.”
“Just an all-out blitz all the time. It didn’t work so good for us at times last year, so we found a real good balance there,” Arniel said.
Players are better this season at making the correct reads, recognizing when they need to attack in “trigger situations” and also when to fall back if the opposition wants to stay on the edges. Arniel said he no longer tells his unit what to do on the ice; they’re doing it on the go.
For example, if opponents are coming below the hash marks, the defensemen know what they are supposed to do without thinking about it. If the opposing forwards are working up the half wall, the Capitals’ forwards understand how to cut that off as they anticipate the next play. The group has also put an extra emphasis on its shared clears shorthanded, an area Arniel said has vastly improved. Maybe a player doesn’t have a good look to shoot it down the ice, but he can bump it 10 feet to someone who can, which can lead to opportunities.
“As a group, we’ve done a better job at helping each other,” Arniel said.
The Capitals are tied for fourth in the league with three shorthanded goals. Arniel said a good example of a systematically sound penalty kill was last season’s Phoenix team, which had 16 shorthanded goals. Calgary led the league with 18.
“I think we got it,” Arniel said. “As a coaching staff, we like what we are seeing. They are recognizing. We aren’t telling them go here or you shouldn’t go here. That’s the worst thing you can do on the ice as a player.”
Specifically, the defensemen on the penalty kill have been a big boost, with Gudas and Siegenthaler the first ones over the boards. Arniel said the unit’s biggest asset is the ability not to use the team’s top players on the penalty kill all the time.
A prime example is John Carlson. If the Capitals are able to use players such as Gudas, Siegenthaler, Michal Kempny and Nick Jensen on the penalty kill most of the time, then Carlson is freed up to join the kill with only 30 seconds to go. Then the Capitals are able to get their top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie over the boards when the kill is finished, and now they are part of the offensive rush, which is a good chance to catch some teams tired.
“We are in a better situation because we have more natural killers,” Arniel said.