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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.”    

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With the season on the line, the Capitals remain confident heading into Game 7

With the season on the line, the Capitals remain confident heading into Game 7

ARLINGTON, Va. – While Capitals fans woke up breathing into paper bags on Wednesday trying not to hyperventilate, the team was all smiles as it skated onto the ice for the morning skate. While the curse of playoff failures past still clearly resonates through a nervous fan base, there was nothing but confidence coming out of MedStar Capitals Iceplex.

“It’s a positive mood,” Carl Hagelin said. “But at the same time, you can see that guys are focused. I think that’s a big part of it, too, being focused going in and knowing that first shift is going to be key.”

The newfound confidence stems from last year’s playoff success which included a dominant 4-0 Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

“I think the last year experience what we have against Tampa helps a lot,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We have the same motivation, we have the same atmosphere. Of course it's not for Stanley Cup Final, it's for second round."

“Until you go through it and you've had success, then you can only talk so much about it,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “Eventually you have to go through it. Our core group has gone through it, and we'll use that as a positive tonight and go about our business."

Unlike last year’s Game 7, however, this one will come in Washington which should give an advantage to the Caps.

The home team has gone 6-0 in this series thus far and Washington has looked like two different teams playing at Capital One Arena and in Raleigh.

While the true advantage of home-ice throughout the league is debatable, clearly it has mattered in this series and, according to the team, the importance of having the home crowd certainly matters to them.

“When the fans cheering for you in your big moment, block shots or kill the penalty and the fans get into it right away, you feel it and it gives you more energy and motivation," Ovechkin said.

"Home ice has been a big advantage in this series,” Reirden said. “I expect our crowd to give us the lift that they have thus far. Right from the start of the playoffs they've given us a boost, I think different than in past years, and it's allowed us to have more success at home.”

One player who will need to step up his game if the Caps hope to extend their season will be Evgeny Kuznetsov. One of the most dominant players in last year’s postseason, Kuznetsov has been held to just five assists and no goals in six games.

Kuznetsov enters Game 7 knowing he needs to be better than he has been to this point.

“I think that is how everyone feels when you lose a game in the playoffs,” he said. “You always feel like you did something wrong and you are not fully there and you know it.”

While the pressure of a Game 7 can wear on some players, however, Kuznetsov said that he looks forward to these moments. Kuznetsov was the Game 7 hero in 2015 when he scored the game and series-winning goal against the New York Islanders.

“Game 7 is Game 7,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “It is fun to play.”

In the past we have seen a tentative Capitals team take the ice, play tight and collapse when things did not go their way. A more experienced team will take the ice on Wednesday knowing that things will not go completely their way in the game, but with the confidence that they are good enough to overcome those obstacles, win and advance.

“I just think unexpected stuff happens and being mentally tough is really important in these games and just having confidence and trust in one another,” John Carlson said. “A lot can go astray, a lot can change quickly and with both of the teams’ backs against the wall, that’s what you rely on and fall back on.”

“You’ve got to be prepared for everything,” Reirden said. “In this situation you need to come back to your foundations as a group, as a system, as a team. That never changes, regardless of what happens within the game. So you've got a system and that's your security blanket, and you've got that structure in place. Where the game goes from there is going to be decided by the players executing that system and that game plan. Every [Game 7] plays out a little bit different. There's crazy swings. It's a fun time to be playing in these type of games and our guys will grow from it no matter what."

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Bruins, Sharks eliminate Maple Leafs, Golden Knights in Game 7s

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Bruins, Sharks eliminate Maple Leafs, Golden Knights in Game 7s

With two Game 7s lined up Tuesday, the daytime was filled with anxiety and curiosity over which teams would come out on top. The Maple Leafs were looking to end a streak of Game 7 losses to their rival Bruins, and the Golden Knights were looking to continue their quest toward returning to the Stanley Cup Final and perhaps getting the job done this year.

However, the games took a wild turn, as Boston was able to easily cruise past Toronto and the Sharks were able to comeback from a 3-0 deficit to win in overtime. Here's how each game played out.

Bruins top Maple Leafs in another Game 7, 5-1

Game 7 seems to happen naturally between these two teams, and yet again, it was Boston who was able to easily win this one with a 5-1 victory.

The beginning of the first period was seemingly quiet, but in the last six minutes, the Bruins turned on the jets. Joakim Nordstrom scored after putting a pass from the top of the circle past Frederik Andersen to make it 1-0 for Boston. Just three minutes later, Marcus Johansson scored on a quick shot that made it 2-0 heading into the second.

John Tavares was able to cut the lead to one early in the second, but Sean Kuraly went top-shelf to restore the Bruins' two-goal lead in the first two minutes of the third.

Charlie Coyle and Patrice Bergeron added two more for Boston to guarantee the win and move onto the second round, and Tuukka Rask made 31 saves in the win. This is the third time in the last decade and the second year in a row that the Maple Leafs have fallen to Boston in seven games in the first round.

Sharks stun Golden Knights with 5-4 OT win

It was an interesting night for the Sharks to say the least. After trailing 3-0 after two periods, it seemed as if the season was over, but a costly major penalty for Vegas led to a comeback and eventual overtime victory for San Jose.

William Karlsson opened the scoring halfway through the first after jumping on a loose puck and firing it past Martin Jones. Cody Eakin added to the lead 10 minutes into the second to make it 2-0, and later, to start the third, Mark Stone struck to make it 3-0.

However, Cody Eakin then cross-checked Joe Pavelski in the head, receiving a five-minute major that led to a lengthy power play for San Jose and changed the momentum of the game. That's when the Sharks scored four goals on the lengthy man advantage.

Logan Couture struck first, scoring on a pass from Kevin Labanc to make it 3-1. A minute later, Tomas Hertl redirected an Erik Karlsson point shot past Fleury to pull San Jose within one. Couture put home his second of the night soonafter, then Labanc had a goal of his own to give San Jose a 4-3 lead with seven minutes remaining.

The Golden Knights were able to tie it with 47 seconds left, as Jonathan Marchessault was able to one-time a feed from Reilly Smith past Jones to make it 4-4. However, the Sharks eliminated Vegas after Barclay Goodrow deked the puck past Fleury in the final minute of the first extra period.

San Jose will face Colorado in the second round, which kicks off Thursday.

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