Photo: Rob Carr
The Capitals penalty kill was the second-best unit in the league during the regular season, killing 85.2 percent of opponents’ chances. Yet on special teams, it was overshadowed by the power play, which finished fifth. While the PK doesn’t provide between-the-legs passes or booming one-timers, it has kept the Capitals in control of their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Washington’s penalty kill is a perfect eight for eight. Going back to the last five games of the regular season, the opponents’ power plays have been stopped 21 times in a row. Despite outshooting the Capitals 61-54 overall in the first two games, the Flyers have scored just one goal. Washington has six, including three power-play goals, good for a 2-0 series lead.
“We got our butts on the line,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said after Saturday’s Game Two loss.
A full third of Thursday’s Game One was played by special teams. Referees Marc Joannette and Steve Kozari assessed 21 penalties to the Capitals and Flyers, placing a premium on power play and penalty kill performance. Excellent PK work deserves credit for that win.
The Caps held the Flyers to just seven shots on goal across eight minutes of power play time that night, and Braden Holtby had the cure for every single one of those shots. Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner both crept over five minutes in total PK time, with additional help from bottom-six forwards like Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Mike Richards, who each spent over three minutes on the ice while shorthanded.
With the Caps’ marquee forwards not scoring, big performances by depth players was the difference maker in Game One.
“Those PKs gave us momentum,” Beagle said after Thursday’s victory. “We knew if we could play five-on-five, we could start getting chances and opportunities.”
One of those chances turned out to be a key goal by Beagle with less than four minutes left, giving Washington a 2-0 victory.
In Game Two, the Capitals once again handed the Flyers four power plays. The team spent just under five minutes shorthanded, during which the Flyers managed five shots, none of which got past Holtby. Once again, Niskanen and Alzner bore the brunt of the minutes, each skating three minutes and 22 seconds on the PK while Richards and Daniel Winnik topped forwards with around two and a half minutes of shorthanded ice time.
Perhaps the most critical moment in the game came towards the end of the first period when Carlson and Jason Chimera both took cross-checking penalties, giving the Flyers an extended five-on-three power play. At the time, the Capitals were getting outshot almost four-to-one. Things looked to be heading for disaster for the Caps. But two minutes later, the Capitals had killed off both penalties. Verizon Center shook as the crowd gave Washington its biggest sustained applause of the night.
“It’s kind of the ultimate challenge in hockey for a penalty killer: try to stop a team five-on-three,” Alzner said. “Sometimes, they go your way, and they did so today.”
Head coach Barry Trotz also considered the moment a turning point, with the Capitals able to begin to even play after going back to full strength.
“I loved how our fans were just going nuts after that,” Carlson, who described Washington’s game as “dreary” before the the five-on-three PK, said. “We kill that off and we get momentum. That’s huge, especially in the playoffs.”
With the Capitals set to play an emotional Game Three in Philadelphia on Monday, one thing is clear: the penalty kill may be great, but the Caps need to stop using it so much.
“Going into Philly, if we have games like we had the last two games, we’re probably not going to come out on top because of discipline issues,” Holtby said. “[Y]ou need to be disciplined, you can’t get sucked into their crowd, sucked into their atmosphere. You have to be extremely mentally tough and focus on playing between the whistles, and I’m sure we’re going to talk about that a lot. That’s going to be a big part of our success there.”
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