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Bye week grades: Special teams

Bye week grades: Special teams

There's no hockey this week for Washington as the Caps are on their bye week. That gives us time to take a look at the team and evaluate how they look at this point in the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent J.J. Regan offer their bye week grades for each aspect of the team. Today, they take a look at the special teams.

El-Bashir: The Caps’ power play is fourth in the NHL through 56 games, connecting at an impressive 22.1-percent. The penalty kill, meantime, sits third at 84.5-percent. 

Let’s start with the power play. 

It got off to a disappointing start after finishing fifth last season (21.9). How bad did it get? From opening night through Dec. 1—a span of 22 games—Alex Ovechkin-led unit slipped as far as 25th, having converted just 14.3-percent of its man advantages.

Those days, however, seem like so long ago. The unit suffered some fits and starts throughout the rest of December but in the end, the Caps’ skill (plus some minor scheme tweaks on both units) won out. Now? The unit has reclaimed its position as a persistent threat after dominating since the calendar flipped to 2017. In fact, from Jan. 1 through Wednesday’s games, a span of 21 games, Ovechkin and Co. have the best percentage (32.7) in the league.

The Caps have fewer power play goals through the same number of games last year. But they’ve more players with at least one goal—12 players vs. 9—and they’re getting a bit more out of the second unit.  

The penalty kill, on the other hand, has been a bit steadier. With the exception of a rough patch from Jan. 16 – Feb. 1, a forgettable span that saw the unit yield a power play goal against seven times in eight games, the Jay Beagle-led unit has been among the most reliable aspects of the Caps’ game.

Since that hiccup, the penalty kill has corrected its issues (in short, Trotz said the unit had become too passive) and has snuffed out 13 of 14 shorthanded situations over the past five games. 

Why is the PK especially important for the Caps? They still take too many penalties. In fact, since Jan 1., they’ve taken more minors (82) than any other club.  

Overall, the penalty kill deserves an ‘A+.’ The power play, however, gets downgraded a bit because of its (really) rough start. 

Grade:  A-

RELATED: 5 things to know about Tom Gilbert

Regan: The overall numbers are good as the Caps boast the fourth-best power play at 22.1-percent and the third-best penalty kill at 84.5-percent. But those numbers hide inconsistencies from both units.

The power play really struggled at the start of the season, falling to 25th in the NHL at the start of December. The unit has suffered goalless streaks of five and six games this season. In three different games, the Caps have had six power play opportunities. Of those 18 opportunities, the power play has scored only once.

The Caps’ recent hot streak has also masked some of the team’s struggles with the penalty kill. The PK unit gave up at least one goal in six straight games from mid-January to the start of February.

But really, the biggest problem for Washington happens before the penalty kill begins. This team is taking too many penalties. Only five teams in the NHL have been shorthanded more times this season than the Caps. Surprisingly, that number is worse at home where the Caps have been shorthanded the third most times in the entire league.

When you look at the stats and see Washington near the top of the league in both power play and penalty kill, it’s easy to assume there are no problems there and for the most part, there’s not. Despite the early struggles, I’m not concerned with an Alex Ovechkin led power play and Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik have proven to be one of the most formidable penalty kill pairs in the NHL. The problem for both the power play and the penalty kill is a weak second unit.

Take it from me. As someone who has seen how much this team focuses on the power play and penalty kill in practice, seen how many times they change the personnel of the second units and heard how much Barry Trotz talks about penalties after games and practices, special teams is an area in which the Caps are still looking to improve.

Grade: B+

MORE CAPITALS: Bye week grades: goaltending

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4 reasons why the Caps beat the Senators

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USA TODAY Sports

4 reasons why the Caps beat the Senators

The Capitals head into Thanksgiving on a high note after a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.

Here's why they won.

Line changes

Barry Trotz surprised everyone by changing up the lines and reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom despite coyly telling the media that he would use the same "group" just two hours before the game. The move worked, however, as an energized Caps team took the ice. The moves were not just felt on the top line, there was a boost all throughout the lineup to start the game and the energy the team played with was evident.

The Caps’ best offensive players looked like their best offensive players

Much has been written in recent days about the Caps’ top-six and its offensive struggles, but they seemed just fine against Ottawa. Ovechkin (1 goal), Backstrom (1 assist), T.J. Oshie (2 assists), Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 goal, 2 assists) and Jakub Vrana (2 goals) all had big nights.

Ovechkin's late first period goal

Multi-goal leads have been hard to come by for the Caps of late. Despite a strong first period, Washington held only a 1-0 lead as the first frame drew to a close. Instead of having a chance to regroup in the locker room, Ottawa found itself suddenly down by two as Ovechkin scored with just five seconds left. That goal set the tone for the start of the second period where Washington was able to tack on another two goals to take the 4-0 lead. Does that momentum carry over to the second without Ovechkin's late tally? I'm not so sure.

Killing a 5-on-3 power play in the second period

Despite the 4-0 deficit, the Senators hung around and scored in the second period to make it 4-1. Then Ovechkin was called for a high-stick and Backstrom got into a bit of a tussle with Ben Harpur after getting a high-stick from him. The ref sent Ovechkin, Backstrom and Harpur to the box. Just 44 seconds later, Tom Wilson joined them after getting called for a slash giving the Senators 1:16 of a two-man advantage power play. One goal would have pulled them within two with over a period left to play. This game was not over. This was a critical moment for Washington and the penalty kill delivered by killing off both penalties. After that, the game really was no longer in doubt.

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3 stars of the game: Caps' stars shine against Senators

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3 stars of the game: Caps' stars shine against Senators

On the eve of Thanksgiving, the Caps gave the home crowd something to be thankful for with a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

Barry Trotz elected to shake up the offensive lines before the game and it seemed to work. The Caps took control of the game from the drop of the puck and took a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period and never looked back.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jakub Vrana

Vrana opened the scoring by crashing the net and was in perfect position for the rebound off of a shot from Evgeny Kuznetsov. His second goal came off a perfect shot, and I do mean perfect. This was the first multi-goal game of his NHL career and his third multi-point game. 

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov

This is why Kuznetsov should shoot more. Vrana's first goal came off a rebound from a shot by Kuznetsov. It was his first even-strength point since Nov. 6. On a power play in the second period, a loose puck came to Kuznetsov's stick. Rather than look for the pass as he has been his tendency, he did not hesitate. He shot it and the result was his third power play goal of the season. Kuznetsov finished with one goal and two assists.

3. Alex Ovechkin

Despite how dominant the first period looked for Washington, they still held only a 1-0 lead. What really set the tone for the game was Ovechkin's first period goal. A quick passing play from Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Chiasson to Ovechkin found the Great 8 behind Ottawa's defense. He finished off the play with the goal to put Washington up 2-0 with just five seconds left in the period. That turned a good period into a dominant one and really set the tone for the start of the second in which the Caps were able to put up another two goals.