Forward Martin Erat was called for interference with 58 seconds remaining in the third period of the Washington Capitals’ eventual 3-2 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. The infraction came about two minutes after Marcus Johansson mustered an even-strength goal to renew Washington’s hopes of salvaging a point in what looked like a loss much of the night.
Capitals Coach Adam Oates said it was a “tough call,” a nitpicky penalty that players often get away with. It left the reenergized Capitals needing to kill a penalty against the league’s second-best power play just to force overtime, in which they would need to kill more than a minute of four-on-three.
Last year, when Washington’s penalty kill ranked 27th in the NHL, that call might have handed the Wild the game. But this season, Washington not only has the top-ranked power play but the best penalty kill in the league. Forwards Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer and defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson — then Laich, Alzner and Carlson in overtime — thwarted Minnesota’s man-up attack.
“That was a huge kill,” Oates said after the game. “The guys did a great job. Huge.”
Staying atop the league on both the power play and the penalty kill is a tall task. The last team to finish a season first in both was the 1984-85 New York Islanders.
“I think if I was a coach, I’d rather have a dominant penalty kill,” Laich said. “I think if you don’t give up goals, it makes it really difficult for the other team.
“That being said,” he added, “I think if our power play gets a goal seven seconds in, that’s pretty lethal, too. We’re lucky to have both.”
The transformation of the Capitals’ once-hapless penalty kill began late last season. Oates’s philosophy finally started to stick, and Washington ended the regular season by killing 23 of its last 25 penalties. The Capitals had been an in-zone pressure, in-your-face type team (at least by design) under former coach Dale Hunter, but Oates asked his penalty killers to pressure the length of the ice and lay off a bit once an opponent set up in its offensive zone.
“When you don’t have a legitimate chance” to chase the puck, Oates said, “why waste your energy?”
Instead, pressuring the length of the ice by disrupting breakouts forces opponents to waste their energy and stalls their attacks.
“I think it makes the power play work a little bit harder,” Alzner said. “Instead of just having them work in-zone, they have to get back and do a full break out. . . . We know what it’s like against us when a team pressures — it’s tough to break out.”
The Capitals flexed all their special-teams muscles Thursday, scoring their first goal 19 seconds into their first power play of the game. Once Washington corralled the faceoff, Johansson passed from the goal line to Nicklas Backstrom at the right half wall. He hit Alex Ovechkin in the left circle, and the captain found the back of the net.
Oates’s 1-3-1 approach on the power play — which features Mike Green at the point, Johansson at the goal line, Brouwer in the slot, Backstrom to the right and Ovechkin in the left circle — always seems to yield open chances, most often for Ovechkin. The Capitals captain has scored seven power-play goals this season, most of them from right around that left faceoff circle.
“It’s not about me. I don’t have to score,” Ovechkin said, crediting Oates’s system. “Of course, if I have a chance to score, I want to put the puck in the net, but again, we have Brouwer in front of the net; we have Greeny, who can shoot the puck; Backy, who can shoot the puck; and Jo-Jo on the goal line. Same on the second unit; anybody can score a goal.”
The Capitals have scored 18 power-play goals in 64 chances (28.1 percent), and Green is the only member of the top power-play corps without one yet. Washington’s second unit, which has featured Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski and Erat, among others this season, has generated six power-play goals.
Laich, whose 48 minutes 8 seconds of shorthanded ice time leads all Washington forwards this season, credits both the system and the way the Capitals execute it.
“Any good power play always eventually two-on-ones a guy,” Laich said. ‘To where he’s going, ‘Well, if I go there, he’s making this play. If I go there, they make that play. What am I supposed to do?’ I think our quarterbacks do a great job of that. It looks like a nightmare to kill against.”
Capitals note: Washington announced Friday it re-signed Chimera, a 34-year-old forward, to a two-year extension that will pay him $2 million a year for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. The speedy left wing was the NHL’s third star of the week this week.
Chimera has five goals and six assists through 16 games this season and has scored 45 goals and assisted on 62 more in 265 games for the Capitals since being acquired from Columbus midway through the 2009-10 season.
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