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Caps' penalty kill has 'room for improvement'

Caps' penalty kill has 'room for improvement'

The Capitals’ penalty kill unit has allowed a goal in four of the first five games this season, including one in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers at Verizon Center.

As with every statistic this time of year, it comes with the following disclaimer: it’s a small sample size. That said, the Caps know that the unit can—and should—be better, particularly after it ranked second in the NHL last year.

“We’ve got some new people there,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “But we’ve also have a lot of the same people.”

Washington’s penalty kill percentage currently sits at 71.4 as the team prepares to depart on a four-game trip to Western Canada. Last year, the unit’s percentage was 85.2. Only Anaheim’s penalty kill was better.

“It’s a mentality,” Trotz said. “Once you start digging yourself a little bit of a hole, you get worried about it. We just need a little confidence going for it. It’s not that we don’t have any, but we just have to get everybody on the same page. We’re not quite there yet, but we will be.”

RELATED: CAPS' FAILED SECOND POWER PLAY PROVES KEY IN LOSS

Since snuffing out all three of the Avalanche’s power play opportunities two games ago, the Panthers and Rangers each struck once. And both times, the goals were big ones.

On Thursday night in South Florida, Jaromir Jagr scored on the man advantage late in the second period to even the score 2-2. The Panthers squeezed off six shots on four power plays in that game.

On Saturday, Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey tallied midway through the second period to knot the score 2-2. New York got off four shots on three opportunities in the contest.  

“I think the first two games, [the goals] were just kind of [deflections],” said defenseman Karl 

Alzner, who is averaging almost two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game. “Even today was a little bit of a pinball out to the backdoor.”

Alzner added: “We just have to see what other teams are doing and continue to get in lanes and block shots. And when we make our switches and stuff like that, it seems like we’re at times a little bit slow to do it. We want to pressure, but we have pressure smart. And if we’re not [in sync], it happens to any penalty kill. I don’t think it’s as bad as it looks right now on paper, but, yeah, we’d like to be better.”

Newcomer Lars Eller said he isn’t overly concerned yet, in part, because he feels opposing power plays have benefited from some fortuitous bounces and those bounces will even out over time.

“You can always improve,” Eller said. “I don’t think it’s the reason we lost [to New York]. A wrist shot from way out on the flank that bounces right to a Rangers’ player. Sometimes it bounces to one of us. Sometimes it bounces to one of them. Things are out of your hands a little bit sometimes. But there’s room for improvement.”

MORE CAPITALS: Rangers hand Caps first regulation loss

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

With Tom Wilson still serving a 20-game suspension, Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has the difficult task of finding a wing to complement his top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For the first four games of the season, that player was Brett Connolly.

On Saturday, however, he changed things up and went with Chandler Stephenson instead.

Just 18 seconds into the game, Stephenson made his head coach look very smart as he finished off a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov to score his first goal of the season.

“Obviously, the start was great,” Reirden said after the game.

Stephenson is an incredibly fast skater and the extra speed seemed to add another dimension to that line that opponents had to contend with, and it led to both of the Caps’ goals on the night.

In addition to Stephenson’s goal, Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty in the second period, and Washington scored on the resulting power play.

“Those guys are a lot of fun to play with,” Stephenson said. “They just know where to be and can find each other. I've just got to get the puck to them and just go to the net with your stick on the ice, and they'll find you.”

The top line’s success was a matter of finding instant chemistry as Stephenson had very little time to adjust. The Caps were off on Friday following back-to-back games, and Reirden did not make the switch of putting Stephenson on the top until Saturday’s morning skate.

Putting a new top line together with little time to practice does not seem like an ideal scenario, but according to Kuznetsov, the level of familiarity between all the players made the adjustment quick and easy.

“It doesn't matter with who you play,” he said. “In this locker room, we can communicate with anybody. We don't have a first line, we don't have a fourth line. We try and roll all lines.”

Reirden seemed pleased with the new trio after the game saying, “They did a number of good things during the game as well, so they I thought accomplished a lot. I thought [Stephenson] brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers that Kuznetsov and [Ovechkin] were able to at least get some opportunities from. So I think that's important to have him in that situation.”

Reirden was happy enough with the top line’s performance to keep them together. The team is off Monday, but Stephenson remained on the top line during Sunday’s practice.

But so long as Wilson remains out, finding the right match for the top line will remain a work in progress.

Said Reirden, “We’ll continue to try to put together our four lines that give us the best chance.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

There was a lot of excitement to start the season for the Caps. First, there was the home-opener and the banner raising against the Boston Bruins. Then there was a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the rival Penguins. After that, it was a Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Vegas Golden Knights.

And all of that was followed up with a trip to Newark.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

With all due respect to New Jersey, given the slate the Caps faced to start the season, it was no real surprise to see the team struggle to get up for Thursday’s game against the Devils, a game in which the Caps were blown out 6-0. Of all the games Washington faced to start the season, the trip to New Jersey was definitely the least exciting.

But not every game is going to be a big rivalry matchup or a playoff rematch. With every team gunning for the Caps, they better make sure they can get themselves ready for the grind of an 82-game season that won’t always feature a big-time matchup.

A trip to Newark may not be flashy or exciting, but it still counts as two points.

The Caps dropped the game in New Jersey and lost a tight contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Where do they stand now after two straight losses?

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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