The Capitals' penalty kill, in a word, stinks.
Over the first nine games and especially the past two, Washington has struggled against opposing power plays, to the tune of just a 77.1 percent success rate — 23rd in the NHL.
Last year, the Capitals were second at 85.6 percent, but they have allowed eight goals on 35 chances this year. Theories abound as to what's not working and how to fix the problem that coach Bruce Boudreau singled out — unprompted — Saturday night. Even owner Ted Leonsis made a point to write about special teams on his blog by noting, "We have to get our penalty kill back to best in class."
Right now, it's not.
"We're just not doing the little things we're supposed to do," defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. "We had too many bad mistakes, and that's cost us."
The mistakes are many and varied. The Caps have been short-handed 13 times in their two-game skid, speaking first and foremost to a need for more discipline. As Hamrlik said, there "wouldn't be an issue" on the kill if there weren't so many to begin with.
It's a multifaceted problem because, while Washington does feature 14 players who kill penalties regularly, significant minutes short-handed can be a drain on players such as center Brooks Laich and defenseman Karl Alzner.
"Those are tiring times being on the penalty kill," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We're working hard, and we've got a lot of guys that log big minutes in those situations."
Mike Green missing the games in Edmonton and Vancouver — and likely Tuesday's at Verizon Center against Anaheim — hurts worse, because it means the Capitals have one fewer defenseman in the mix.
Boudreau pointed out that the Caps have tired at the ends of kills. Chris Higgins' first of two goals came with 10 seconds left on a penalty in the first period. Henrik Sedin scored just three seconds after left wing Alex Ovechkin's penalty expired in the third period of Saturday's 7-4 loss to the Canucks.
"We either have to make quicker changes," Boudreau said," or we still haven't figured it out or we'd have none against."
Figuring it out also includes everyone being in sync. The Caps feature new penalty killers in Hamrlik, and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern, and fitting them into this system is a work in progress.
"A lot of the problems have just been when it's time to be aggressive for all the guys to be aggressive and when it's not time, sit back," Halpern said. "We're kind of making sure all four of us are on the same page and executing kind of what our game plan is."
And while it looked like at times the Caps were overcommitting and opening up backdoor plays, Alzner insisted it was the opposite. Last year, he said, both defensemen and one forward were making life difficult on the guy with the puck in the corner. Not anymore, and it's costing them.
"I think that we were getting caught in the middle too much. We weren't being aggressive enough," Alzner said. "There's very, very, very few guys in the league that can make a no-look, backhand pass cross-ice. Almost nobody's going to make that. So if we're on them fast enough, that's their only option."
Opponents have had a lot of options against the Capitals — and taken them — with goals from the point, sliding across the slot and on the weak side. But they made it an emphasis on penalty killing in practice Monday with the idea of fixing this problem before it leads to more defeats.
"We're starting to adjust like that, and we're having to make adjustments," Boudreau said. "But we are making those adjustments and we will get better with it."
NOTE: The Caps on Monday placed enforcer D.J. King on waivers with the purpose of gauging if another NHL team was interested. King, who has appeared in one game so far, said that was to be "fair" to him because his camp asked the team to find him a place to play.
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