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.”
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