There was one undeniable bright spot throughout the roller coaster that was the Washington Capitals’ season last year: the team’s penalty kill, which jumped from 25th the previous season to 2nd in the entire NHL in 2010-2011.
Capitals’ Assistant Coach Dean Evason identified three factors when talking with OFB about what made that jump possible for the Capitals: personnel, tweaks to the system, and goaltending.
“First and foremost, our goaltending was really good,” Evason said. “Your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer. And our goaltenders were our best penalty killers last year.”
Ironically, the best save percentage in shorthand situations last season belonged to AHL callup Braden Holtby, who faced 52 shots while the Capitals were shorthanded and stopped all but 3 of them. Semyon Varlamov had a.892 save % shorthanded, while Michal Neuvirth was lower at .885 (37th in the league).
Meanwhile, in front of the net, the system altered. Evason said the Capitals tweaked their approach in shorthanded situations to be “really aggressive–to force teams to make great plays, make three, four perfect passes to beat us.” Their philosophy now is to put as much pressure as they can on the opponent.
He also said that past few years have helped the Capitals figure out personnel and who can play best shorthanded.
“We were kind of going through a learning phase the last few years with people,” Evason said. “And now we know who’s good penalty killers and who aren’t. We’ve got people in those roles.”
According to Evason, Caps fans should see at least one noticeable adjustment on the penalty kill this year: slightly limited time for Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, not because of poor performance, but in order to free them up offensively. Since Evason feels there are about 10 forwards on the current Capitals roster that can play the penalty kill, it’s not as necessary for Backstrom to rack up shorthanded minutes . Last season alone, Backstrom played 111 minutes while the Capitals were shorthanded, the most of any forward on the team except for Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon. Semin had over 60 minutes of penalty killing time, which was actually slightly below his 2009-2010 totals.
One big loss this season is Scott Hannon, who had the most penalty kill minutes of anyone on the team last year, and whom Evason mentions by name when talking about the success of last year’s PK unit. Eight of the top 10 players in shorthand time on ice from last season, however, have returned to the Capitals this season. Plus, they’ve added players like Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward.
Despite Hannon’s absence, Evason believes the Caps are incredibly deep in guys who can play on the penalty kill—so deep, in fact, that there’s a chance guys not committed enough to the situation will end up watching it from the bench.
The Personnel on the PK Unit
There’s a solid list of traits an NHLer needs to be a good penalty killer. Work ethic. Stick skills to eliminate passing lanes. A commitment to blocking shots.
“Not a lot of guys have that commitment to block shots,” Evason said.
But for those who can penalty kill, the role is a double-edged sword: it’s physically painful to play, but it may be just as painful to be stuck watching on the bench.
Brooks Laich, who leads the team in shorthanded ice time so far this season, calls penalty killing the “underbelly of hockey.”
“You’re out there against the team’s best players, with one less guy on the ice for yourself. You’re expected to block shots and passes, and cover two guys at once,” Laich told OFB.
In fact, he laughs when asked if he prefers playing on the penalty kill or the power play.
“Power play, all the way. The penalty kill sucks,” said Laich, who was 29th overall in the league among forwards in shorthanded minutes played last season. “I don’t enjoy it, but if I was left on the bench and the penalty kill was going on, I’d be probably upset, I’d be mad, because I’d want to be out there to try to kill it off, because I believe it’s a really important part of the game.”
Despite the bruises, broken body parts and other assorted disasters that come with the job, it’s also a privilege, and the depth of the Capitals’ roster means those who don’t take it seriously could easily find themselves without the ice time.
“We told the guys right from the start that we have so many penalty killers that if you don’t get the job done, you don’t kill,” Evason said. “Guys want to kill penalties because they’re on the ice, they’re in the game, their ice time [goes up] … we want guys that are committed to kill penalties to help us win the hockey game.”
This year, two games into the season, the Capitals are 23rd in the league in penalty killing. They’ve been shorthanded 8 times and given up 2 goals. But there was improvement even in that 72-hour stretch: the only goals they gave up were in Game 1, despite six of the penalty kills coming in Game 2. And new goalie Tomas Vokoun, despite his underwhelming debut in Game 2, is coming off a stellar performance in shorthanded situations last year, where he had a .968 save percentage. Also, as Evason noted, the Capitals have enough qualified personnel on their roster that an ineffective penalty killer will soon find himself on the bench.
So while the number of guys on the ice might say the team is shorthanded, it sounds like the Capitals feel they’re anything but.