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.”
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