EDMONTON, Alberta — Watch Marcus Johansson on the penalty kill, and it’s as if he was playing five-on-five. The young center flashes his speed, takes chances and shows he’s a dangerous all-around player.
Watch forwards Jeff Halpern or Joel Ward on the penalty kill, and it’s as if they were playing five-on-five. They make the simple plays and take care of business in the corners.
That’s how the Washington Capitals‘ forwards have thrived while short-handed. And while the numbers still have Washington’s penalty kill in the middle of the pack, it’s an aggressive unit that can only improve as its role players continue to meld together.
“Everybody right now is buying into their roles on the PK,” Johansson said. “I think we’ve got every part that a team needs right now. It’s very good to have all types of players. I think everybody’s really good at what they’re doing, too.”
So good that the Capitals have allowed just four power-play goals going into Thursday night’s game at the Oilers - and none was because the forwards didn’t play their part. It’s only seven games in, but the penalty killers are following the structure set out by assistant coach Bob Woods.
And following it well, in their own ways.
“We’re all trying to take the same angles and take the same spots,” Halpern said. “Sometimes attributes — whether it’s speed, good hands, blocking pucks down or ability to read plays — all weighs into it. I would say more than anything the ability to read the power plays and where you are.”
Down a man, Ward said, the key is to be smart. He and his teammates have had a couple of brain cramps — such as a breakdown on a power-play goal by Carolina’s Eric Staal in the opener — but generally have been fundamentally sound.
Fundamentals can work, but the Caps also toss in an aggressive style of penalty-killing: extra players helping out in the corners if there’s a loose puck and no fear when trying to intercept passes along the perimeter.
“We’re pretty aggressive,” Woods said. “I think when you put pressure on, no matter what type of skilled players [on the opposition], it forces them to make decisions before they want to. I think that’s very effective.”
Effective, not suffocating or dominant, describes the penalty kill, which is still developing. Woods credited fellow assistant Dean Evason for pre-scouting opposing power plays so the Capitals know what to expect.
Because of that, the penalty kill can adapt and adjust on the fly. Still, the general structure remains the same.
“You’re down a guy, you try to at least force the other team to make plays and that’s what we try to do,” Ward said. “Hopefully we try to create a few turnovers.”
Perhaps down the line even a short-handed goal or two. Given the speed of guys such as Johansson and left wing Jason Chimera, it seems almost an inevitability.
But for now, the Caps’ unique penalty-killing pieces are in the process of jelling, while turning up the pressure on opponents.
“It’s everybody working together — it’s almost one guy starts it and everybody knows what they have to do after it,” Woods said. “When everybody does it the way they’re supposed to, it works pretty good.”
Notes: Coach Bruce Boudreau said it “doesn’t look good” for defenseman Mike Green (ankle) to be in the lineup Thursday vs. the Oilers. … Goaltender Tomas Vokoun said he was told he’d start his seventh straight game. Michal Neuvirth is working his way back from a bruised right heel.