GLENDALE, Ariz. — Having the best power play and top penalty kill in the NHL means you carry both a badge on your shoulder and a target on your back. The Washington Capitals’ special teams own that distinction, so whatever swagger they have will be tested by their opponents’ desire to take them down.
When the units don’t produce at critical moments, it reinforces the reality that victories cannot be fueled on special teams alone. Saturday night, in a 4-3 shootout loss to Phoenix, the Capitals’ power play and penalty kill failed in key junctures.
The Capitals squandered a two-goal lead in the third period, allowing the Coyotes to tie the contest on a power-play goal by Shane Doan with 1 minute 46 seconds remaining in regulation. In overtime, the Capitals failed to convert on a power play as they saw their four-game winning streak halted.
Neither squad was perfect in a game that relied heavily on special teams, combining for 17 penalties and nearly as many minutes of power-play time.
“It gets a lot of attention, right?,” Coach Adam Oates said of the special teams units. “So because of that [opponents] are spending a lot of energy trying to defuse that. That’s why you can’t rely on it. We’ve said it all along: we can’t rely on special teams. They’ve got to be good, but that’s not how you win games.”
Through 40 minutes, it looked as though Washington’s potent power play and penalty kill would propel it to another victory. The Coyotes took an initial 1-0 lead in the first period on Doan’s first power-play tally of the night, but Washington seized control of the contest in the second.
Early in the second period, in the waning moments of their second power play, the Capitals caught Phoenix unaware on a line change. From behind his own goal line, Mike Green fired an outlet pass to Troy Brouwer at the offensive blue line, where the winger had all the time and space he could want for a blast over Mike Smith’s left shoulder to knot the score at 1 just 38 seconds into the middle period.
A little more than three minutes later, on yet another power play, John Carlson scored on a booming one-timer from the high slot to put the Capitals up 2-1 with his third goal in four games.
But then the Capitals took a precarious route in the contest with a self-administered test of their shorthanded play with a parade to the penalty box. The run included a too-many-men minor and penalties from Steve Oleksy (tripping), Brouwer (delay of game and unsportsmanlike conduct) and then Nicklas Backstrom (hooking) in just more than five minutes.
Washington weathered a span of 6:08 shorthanded in the second period and managed to only allow four shots on goal during that stretch, but the relentless need to thwart penalties overtaxed the unit overall. The Coyotes had prepared to face this penalty kill as well and the more looks they got at it, the better they could anticipate certain plays.
“You definitely don’t want to have to use that PK as much as we did again tonight. We’re bound to get scored against when we take a lot of penalties,” Karl Alzner said. “They did a good job. They clearly did a lot of scouting against us, just from little plays that I know me and Carly would do, they were ready for those.”
Joel Ward provided some cushion with a goal on a bad-angle shot that created a 3-1 lead late in the second, but the Capitals never got any additional scoring, despite having plenty of chances.
Washington failed to convert on a 1:11-long five-on-three in the first half ot the third period while still holding on to its two-goal lead. Lauri Korpikoski scored on a rebound to give the comeback life, trimming the Capitals’ advantage to 3-2 with 3:26 left in the third. Then it was rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt who fired the puck over the glass, putting Washington on the penalty kill for a sixth time and setting up Doan’s equalizer.
Even after Phoenix, which is undefeated in regulation at home, wrestled away momentum in the contest the Capitals had one more opportunity in the form of a full, four-on-three power play at the start of overtime. They recorded only two shots on goal before it expired.
“It’s a little bit of execution that we need to make sure that we capitalize on those chances,” Carlson said. “We’ve got good enough players in here that we’ve got to do that. It’s a tough way to go.”