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Capitals' strong start linked to penalty kill

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Capitals' strong start linked to penalty kill

There are lots of reasons the Capitals (14-5-1) are off to one of their best starts in franchise history.

They rank fifth in the NHL in goals per game (3.05) and fourth in goals allowed per game (2.20). They are also fourth in shots per game (31.1) and second in shots against (26).

But their dual success on special teams, where they rank seventh on the power play and fifth on the penalty kill, might be the biggest reason the Caps own the NHL’s fifth-best record through 20 games.

“It’s very important,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Those are huge in terms of momentum shifts and ways to win games.

“When your penalty kill is not doing really well and you get a power play against, you’re nervous on the bench. The penalty kill can give you momentum because you’re at a disadvantage and you have to fight through that.”

Monday night against the Edmonton Oilers the Caps found themselves precisely in that situation when Nicklas Backstrom took a four-minute high sticking penalty midway through the second period of a scoreless game.

That’s when Caps assistant coach Lane Lambert kicked his game into gear. A veteran of 283 NHL games, Lambert, 51, pre-scouts every Capitals opponent and presents his penalty killers with specific tendencies on each opposing power play.

“Lane does a really good job of pre-scouting teams,” said left wing Jason Chimera. “He comes to the rink and you can see his passion -- kicking boards behind the bench when we get scored on. He really takes it personally for sure. He wants us to do well on it.”

So far, this season they have. Despite the losses of penalty killers Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr, the Caps have allowed just eight power-play goals on 54 attempts while also netting one shorthanded goal by Jason Chimera. The Caps have killed off nine of their last 10 shorthanded situations over the past five games.

And they’re doing it with a wider variety of players and a greater distribution of shorthanded ice time. While Matt Niskanen (2:23), Karl Alzner (2:12), Brooks Orpuk (2:11) and John Carlson (2:11) have held down the fort from the back end, Brooks Laich leads all Caps forwards with 1:55 of shorthanded ice time per game, followed by Jay Beagle (1:50), T.J. Oshie (1:27), Williams (1:05), Backstrom (1:02), Chimera (1:01) and Tom Wilson (:58).

Laich says one trick to a successful kill is fresh legs.

“After 20 seconds you start to wear down and you might get trapped,” he said. “Sometimes you can get away with longer shifts but if you can roll them and stay fresh with 20-second shifts that’s a good time to change.”

Another is a reliable partner. Williams, who logged a total of 11:28 of shorthanded ice time with the Kings last season, already is at 29:41 this season while skating alongside Chimera.

“The more familiar you get the easier it is to read each other,” Williams said. “Chimmer and I have been doing pretty well at it. You’ve got a responsibility and it gives you the added incentive that you’re important and you’re in there to do a job.”

Wilson, who last season saw just 46 seconds of shorthanded ice time, already is up to 19:35 this season and is beginning to carve a reputation as a shot blocker. Last April he took one off the head on a slap shot by Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser.

“I changed my form a little bit,” Wilson said. “I’ve had some success this season blocking some shots and hopefully getting the precious parts out of the way – the head and the ankles. There’s obviously a technique, but the first plan is getting in front of it.”

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby giving Capitals fans reason to believe

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

After a rough start, the Caps battled back to make a game of it against Tampa Bay, but ultimately fell 4-2 to the Lightning. Here's why.

The first period

To put it simply, this game was lost in the opening period. Washington was the better team for the second and third but they could not overcome the 3-0 lead they spotted the Lightning in the first. Beyond the goals, the Caps just did not play well. Even the simplest of plays looked difficult as Washington struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, gave up numerous turnovers and scoring chances and just looked overmatched. Braden Holtby also looked shaky allowing three goals on just eight shots. Usually he is able to cover up some of the mistakes the defense makes it front of him, but he was not there to bail the team out on Tuesday in what was a really rocky start.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Taking a penalty 34 seconds into the game

Entering Tuesday’s game, Tampa Bay boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Playing a disciplined game is part of every game plan, but that is especially true against such a dominant unit. Giving up a penalty just 34 seconds into the game was not an ideal start. The call itself was debatable. Brett Connolly was called for interference when he knocked over Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. The puck was just behind Girardi as he had lost control of it in his skates. The sticking point here is that Girardi no longer had possession and Connolly could have played the puck instead of the player. Most referees would probably let that go with the puck so close, but Connolly was not so lucky. Whether it was a good call or not, the Caps found themselves down a man and down a goal soon after as Brayden Point scored the power play tally.

A missed opportunity from Kuznetsov on one end, a goal for Nikita Kucherov on the other

Even after spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead, the Caps made a game of it. Lars Eller struck on the power play in the second period and Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington to within one with about nine minutes left to play. Just over a minute later, Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the puck away from Nikita Kucherov, the frontrunner for league MVP this season, at the Tampa blue line giving the Caps a short 2-on-1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was textbook on the play forcing Kuznetsov as far wide as he could go while still covering the passing lane and Kuznetsov elected to shoot from the faceoff dot rather than attempt the pass to T.J. Oshie.Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine blocker save to deny what looked like a great opportunity to tie the game. As always happens in hockey, a failed opportunity on one end led to an opportunity in the other direction. Less than a minute later, Kucherov made up for his mistake by scoring a breakaway goal to put the game out of reach at 4-2.

MORE CAPITALS: KEMPNY EXCITED TO MOVE FROM LAST PLACE CHICAGO TO FIRST PLACE WASHINGTON

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3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

The first 20 minutes of Tuesday's game did not go well for Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored three times in the opening frame and rode that lead all the way to the 4-2 win.

With the game heading towards a repeat of their blowout loss to Chicago, the Capitals rebounded in the second period to make a game of it as Lars Eller scored on a power play. Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington within one in the third period, but Nikita Kucherov slammed the door shut with a breakaway goal to extend the lead back to 2.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Brayden Point: Tampa Bay won this game in the first period when they took a 3-0 lead. Point scored two of those three goals. His first came only 2:30 into the game. He retreated to the blue line on the power play believing Jay Beagle would clear the puck. When Beagle turned the puck over, he recognized it and immediately crashed the net, taking a Ryan Callahan pass in the slot and shooting it through the five-hole of Braden Holtby.

On his second goal, Anton Stralman saw an opportunity on the Caps’ line change and passed the puck up to Point at the blue line. Point turned on the jets to get behind the defense and went five-hole again on Holtby to make the score 3-0.

2. Alex Ovechkin: After the first period, Washington slowly took this game over for much of the remaining 40 minutes. Ovechkin was a big part of that as he totaled an incredible 19 shot attempts for the game. Nine of those shots were on goal and he found the back of the net in the third period for career goal No. 594.

3. Tom Wilson: Through the first period, the Caps looked well on their way to a repeat of the 7-1 debacle they suffered Saturday in Chicago. They had nothing going in this game until Wilson drew a trip from Vladislav Namestnikov in the second period. Eller would score on the resulting power play giving Washington some much-needed life.

The Namestnikov penalty was the 29th drawn penalty of the season for Wilson, which moves him into a tie with Matthew Tkachuk for the most drawn penalties in the NHL.