After the first day of training camp in September under new head coach Todd Reirden, he made clear one of the changes he wanted to see this season.
“I think you look at certain areas that you like to improve on,” Reirden said. “You look at where things settled out for us last year in the regular season statistically and then particularly as we went through the playoffs areas you can get better. There is always room to get better, and those were some spots I thought we could make some adjustments to in the penalty kill and some other things that you’ll maybe see as we move forward. I would say that would be the biggest difference there.”
Washington’s new-look power play, however, has gotten off to a rocky start and cost the team two losses in their last four games, despite giving up only two goals at five-on-five.
The Capitals penalty kill is down to 71.7-percent, which ranks 29th in the NHL. During the last four games, Washington gave up six power-play goals, including two against an Arizona Coyotes team -- which handed the Caps their most recent loss, 4-1, Sunday -- that ranks in the lower half of the league in its power play efficiency and was playing on the second leg of a back-to-back.
“Obviously, we’re struggling there, and it’s something that we’ve got to be better at,” Nicklas Backstrom said.
The addition of players like Evgeny Kuznetsov (1:16 of penalty kill time on Sunday) signaled a more aggressive style of penalty killing, one in which teams have to account for Washington’s offensive threat even while on the power play. You can see that more aggressive style at work as the Caps clearly try to push the puck into the offensive zone more so than in years past.
Thus far, however, the team has struggled to find a balance between pushing the offense while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. That was evident Sunday on Arizona’s first goal.
While on the penalty kill, three Caps players joined the rush for an offensive opportunity that ended with Darcy Kuemper saving a shot from John Carlson. The Coyotes turned a big rebound into a rush in the other direction, and the Caps were caught completely out of position. While the penalty killers nearly got back in time, they had no time at all to set up the penalty kill, and Arizona capitalized with a few quick passes.
“It’s just a bad read by us,” Backstrom said. “Too many guys attacking there instead of maybe playing it out and waiting for it to be five-on-five. We saw an opportunity. It’s easy to say that after, too. But, yeah, there’s absolutely an area that we can be better at.”
If the Caps want to find a way to be offensively dangerous and also defensively sound on the penalty kill, they need look no further than their opponent on Sunday. Not only do the Coyotes boast the top penalty kill in the league with a success rate of 91.8-percent, but they have also tallied an incredible nine shorthanded goals already this season. They have found a formula that works for them in both ends of the ice, something that clearly has proven elusive for the Caps.
It should be noted that Washington is also missing Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik from the lineup, three players who were major contributors to the penalty kill last season. While Beagle has moved on to the Vancouver Canucks, they will be getting Wilson and Orpik back at some point. Their addition will provide a boast, but for now, the Caps need to find a solution and fast because the penalty kill is clearly costing them points in the standings.
“I think there's some ways of evaluating it that it's getting better, but it's not getting it done,” Reirden said after Sunday’s game. “You can continue to look at it different ways. We have some different personnel in that situation, a different way of going about things on the penalty kill, but right now it's costing us games. We can't expect to win when you're giving up penalty kill goals like we are at the rate we are right now.”
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