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After a slow start, the Capitals' special teams are turning the corner

After a slow start, the Capitals' special teams are turning the corner

Each year, Barry Trotz’s goal for the Capitals’ special teams is to be ranked among the top-5 in the NHL.

Last season, they met that high standard as the penalty kill finished second and the power play wound up fifth.

This season, the units are (finally) trending toward a spot in the top-5 after uncharacteristically poor starts for both of them.

Entering Tuesday’s games, the penalty kill is up to seventh (84-percent) after languishing near the bottom of the league in October. In fact, the P.K. permitted a power play goal in five of this season’s first six games.

Since then, however, the group has responded well to some minor personnel and structural tweaks and has snuffed out 86.6-percent of the shorthanded situations it has faced. That’s good for fifth-best in the league during that span. What’s more, Jay Beagle and T.J. Oshie have scored shorthanded goals.

“I think our P.K. has been good all year [but] we had some really bad bounces early,” Oshie after practice on Tuesday. “Obviously, at the start of the year you don’t really work on the P.K. as much, so there’s some misreads here and there.”

Trotz said he noticed the penalty kill start to make major strides in early November.

“The P.K. started growing probably eight or ten games into it,” Trotz said. “You could see a big growth.”

The power play, though, took a little while longer to turn the corner.

The Alex Ovechkin-led unit snapped a five-game drought in the 7-1 drubbing of the rival Penguins on Nov. 16. If you include the two goals scored with the man advantage in that game, the power play has accounted for at least one goal in 11 of the past 15 contests.

“On the power play, we just weren’t bearing down as much,” Oshie said. “We weren’t hitting the net enough. And now we’re working together, we’re winning puck battles, we’re getting goals from both units. It’s trending up, but with how good this power play has been in the past, it was only a matter of time until we got that hard mentality, that work ethic back to win puck battles and get second chances and third chances.”  

Over the past 15 contests, the unit, now up to 11th, has scored 14 goals on 55 opportunities (25.4-percent). During that 15-game timeframe, the Caps own the league’s fourth most effective power play. Nine different players have scored during that span, as well.

“With the power play, it was just getting the confidence,” Trotz said. “You can look back, and [it began] whenever we started going back-to-back games [with a goal]. We’ve had some big power play goals where we needed that power play goal to either tie a game or win a game. That’s when they sorta get some confidence.”

Trotz wasn’t specific, but you don’t have to look too hard to figure out the games he was talking about. In Tampa on Dec. 3, Nicklas Backstrom forced overtime with a late power play tally. Then, a game later, Marcus Johansson came through late against Buffalo to send the game to extra time. The P.P. has been humming ever since.

Despite the unit’s early struggles, Trotz said the coaching staff avoided the temptation to make wholesale changes to the personnel or the X’s and O’s. And now that faith is being rewarded.

“For the most part, you have to trust the success that that group has had,” Trotz added. “They know the tells and [tendencies]. There wasn’t anything systematically wrong with the power play. We were getting chances, but we had to find the back of the net. It was a little bit of execution, a little bit if finish, a little bit of mentality. …The mentality had to change to, ‘We need this power play to score in order for us to win.’ When that mentality started to change, that put the urgency on us. We’re executing just a bit better and we’re finding the back of the net. Nothing gives you more confidence than success.”    

MORE CAPITALS: Capitals defenseman misses practice on Tuesday

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Evgeny Kuznetsov considered day-to-day, will miss Sunday's game in Philadelphia

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Evgeny Kuznetsov considered day-to-day, will miss Sunday's game in Philadelphia

Evgeny Kuznetsov has been declared day-to-day with an undisclosed upper body injury, the Caps announced Saturday afternoon.

He will not play Sunday against the Flyers, marking the first time in four seasons that the durable 25-year-old center will have missed a game.

Kuznetsov, the Caps’ assists leader and first line pivot over the past week, was injured in the second period of Friday’s 6-3 win over the Islanders. On the play, he slashed on the arm by New York defenseman Thomas Hickey before he tumbled awkwardly into the end boards.


Kuznetsov did not return to the contest.

The Caps did not practice on Saturday as they made their way to Philadelphia, where they'll look to extend their winning streak to five games.  

The team, per usual, did not elaborate about the extent or nature of Kuznetsov’s injury. But it does seem to be a good sign that he was not listed as week-to-week—the designation the Caps typically reserve for more severe injuries. And with a two point lead on Pittsburgh in the Metro Division standings—and a game in hand—they can actually afford to be cautious with one of their most important players.


The injury does, however, come at a time when Kuznetsov appeared to be hitting his stride. Including the two assists he had racked up prior to leaving Friday’s game, Kuzy has amassed five goals and 11 assists in 10 games.    

Without Kuznetsov on Sunday, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle will be the team’s most experienced centers. Travis Boyd and/or Chandler Stephenson figure to be deployed as the fourth pivot.

Coach Barry Trotz is expected to meet with reporters prior to Sunday’s game. It’s possible he’ll shed some more light on Kuznetsov’s outlook at that time.

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Who ya got? Trotz faces tough choice in net after Holtby's strong return

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Who ya got? Trotz faces tough choice in net after Holtby's strong return

Braden Holtby has made Barry Trotz’s weekend very difficult, but in a good way.

Back-to-back games against the New York Islanders offered the Capitals an opportunity to play both Philipp Grubauer and Holtby. Grubauer stayed hot earning another win for Washington. On Friday, Holtby got his first start since March 6 and played very well.

“A win is good,” Holtby said after the game. “I felt pretty comfortable. Some things to build off of and things that I want to get better at. It was a step in the right direction.”


A 22 save effort on Friday was bookended by two big saves. The first shot Holtby faced was a turnover on the power play that led to a dangerous shorthanded scoring opportunity for John Tavares early in the first period. Then in the third, with the Capitals leading 5-3 and the Islanders trying to mount a comeback, Holtby turned aside a breakaway opportunity for star rookie Mathew Barzal.

“I thought he was pretty solid,” Trotz said. “He looked really confident.”

“I felt a lot better,” Holtby said. “Not that I was feeling horrible before, it's just you get refreshed. It's like anything, you have a week off work, a holiday or something, you come back a little refreshed.”

And that brings us to Sunday.

On Sunday, the Capitals play the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are a team in playoff position in desperate need of points after seven of their last eight games.

When asked on Wednesday who he thought would start Sunday’s game, Trotz said, “We're in a result business and we need some results so we'll see who is looking the sharpest and gives us the best chance to win.”

Both Grubauer and Holtby were impressive in their starts over the Islanders. You can’t argue Holtby is suddenly the hotter hand after one win considering how well Grubauer has played of late, but if Holtby remaisn the team’s No. 1, shouldn’t he get the next start after a strong winning performance?


Trotz was asked after the game who would start on Sunday after Holtby’s win.

“They're both playing well so I can't even answer that right now to be honest with you,” he said. “I do know that we have a number of games this week and whatever way go, obviously I'm going to sit down with the coaches and whatever way we go, I think they're both going to get some time this week.”

“I think you have to take it game-by-game,” Trotz added. “Bottom line is that you've got to make a decision and go with it and if your decision is that goalie A is a little hotter or you've just got a gut feel then you go with it and you have to live with it good or bad.”

So for now, it sounds as if we will see a rotation in net as Trotz continues evaluating which netminder gives the team the best chance to win in the playoffs. It is a tough position for the Caps’ bench boss, but, if both goalies continue to perform, having to choose between a hot Grubauer and a resurgent Holtby is a good problem to have and much preferable to having to choose between backup Grubauer and slumping Holtby.

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