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After a slow start, the Capitals' special teams are turning the corner

After a slow start, the Capitals' special teams are turning the corner

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.”    

MORE CAPITALS: Capitals defenseman misses practice on Tuesday

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Caps at Islanders: Ovechkin is in for final game before bye week

Caps at Islanders: Ovechkin is in for final game before bye week

The Capitals (32-11-5) head to Long Island to take on the New York Islanders (28-14-4) in the last game before the bye week. Tune in to NBC Sports Washington for all the action! Pregame coverage starts at 12 p.m. with Caps FaceOff Live followed by Caps Pregame Live bringing you up to the 1 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington after the game for postgame coverage with Caps Postgame Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here is what you need to know for Saturday's game.

Ovechkin is in

By skipping the All-Star Game, Alex Ovechkin is subject to a one-game suspension. He must serve that suspension in either the last game before the bye week or the first game back. Todd Reirden said following Thursday's game that Ovechkin will play on Saturday meaning he will miss the Jan. 27 game against the Montreal Canadiens. This should come as no surprise considering the Islanders game is a division game and the Montreal game is not.

Here are the lines based on Friday's practice:

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas

Ovechkin is red-hot

It is a good thing Ovechkin is playing Saturday because he is red-hot right now. He has five goals in just the past two games and sits one behind Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in goals.

Holtby starts

Ilya Samsonov started the last two games and played well, but with the bye week upcoming, Reirden felt it important to get Braden Holtby back in. He confirmed Friday that Holtby will be the starter.

Holtby has not registered a save percentage above .900 in six straight starts and he sits at .899 for the season. He has still managed a 18-9-4 record for the season, however. Reirden said the last two games for Samsonov allowed Holtby the chance to "reset." HIs last game was on Jan. 11 against the New Jersey Devils.

When last we met

With Holtby in net, he will have a chance to rebound after this last start against the Islanders, a tough 4-3 loss at home on New Year's Eve. He allowed four goals on 22 shots in that game.

It was a very sloppy affair, not what we are used to seeing from the typically buttoned-up Islanders defense and turnovers were a problem for both sides. Semyon Varlamov closed the door in the period, stopping a whopping 17 shots as Washington poured it on looking to tie it.

Here's a recap of the game.

Washington is 1-1-0 against the Islanders this season with the final matchup coming on Feb. 10.

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Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne believes Alex Ovechkin will catch Wayne Gretzky

Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne believes Alex Ovechkin will catch Wayne Gretzky

During the Caps big win over the Carolina Hurricanes Monday night, Alex Ovechkin passed Finnish great Teemu Selanne on the all-time goal list, bringing him to 11th overall. He currently stands at 689 goals and his next target on the list is Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux at 690.

With Ovechkin closing in on yet another goal-scorer, Selanne took to Twitter to say that he believes Ovechkin will be the one to pass Wayne Gretzky's mark of 894 goals.

Selanne isn't the only one who believes the Great Eight can catch up to the Great One. Nicklas Backstrom thinks his captain can do it, Sidney Crosby agrees with that assessment,  and the Great One himself said that Ovi has elevated the way the game has been played with his goal-scoring pursuit.

Ovi's take on it all? That if he's able to complete the feat he'll retire immediately. Ovi needs 205 more goals to reach that mark.