There isn’t much about the Washington Capitals’ start to the season that could be called special. At 2-6-1, they’re in last place in the Eastern Conference.
The reasons for that are plentiful, but special teams have played all too big a role. Considering the Caps are woeful on the penalty kill and unable to find any consistency on the power play, it’s no surprise they have just five points.
“It’s the deciding [factor] in the games right now,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve been taking a lot of penalties, too. There’s a lot of power play and penalty kill. It’s a big key in the game.”
Statistically, special teams are killing the Caps. Through Sunday, they surrendered 12 of their league-worst 33 goals on the penalty kill, a 72.7 percent success rate good for 25th in the NHL. And their six power-play goals on 37 attempts (16.2 percent) is in the middle of the pack at 17th.
“Special teams and discipline, I guess,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “You’ve got to be disciplined first. And then special teams, obviously it’s a big part of the game. I guess at first it was more the special teams the first few games, and then it became details and small mental mistakes that cost us.”
Anecdotally, special teams are killing the Caps. And it’s not always about scoring on the power play. Psychologically there’s an impact.
“When you get one, you can feel it on the bench, the guys are excited: ‘We got a power play, this could be it,’” coach Adam Oates said. “With the guys we have, that should be the feeling.”
With the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Backstrom still around from the days when the Caps’ power play ran roughshod over the NHL, there’s an expectation of goals. Add in the fact that Oates came in with the reputation as a power-play specialist and the hope was for more success.
“Our goal is to go score goals. If we’re not getting chances, then we’re not doing our job,” Green said. “We are going out there to score a goal and that’s the bottom line. If we don’t, we didn’t do our job.”
Part of the job of a good power play, even if unsuccessful, is to build some type of momentum. In Sunday’s loss, the Caps’ power play was ineffective in the second period, and then the Pittsburgh Penguins scored on the next shift.
“Obviously you’re not going to score every power play. You’re going to have five, six power plays a game and you might score one or two,” Ribeiro said. “But the other ones that you don’t score, you want to generate momentum, you want to generate shots and zone time and get your team back into it.
“If you have a dead power play or you don’t create much, most of the time the other team will come back with a good shift, and you see what happened last game.”
That kind of thing has happened plenty for the Caps through their first nine games, even if it took a few shifts for the tide to turn against them. Then there have been the 12 goals allowed in short-handed situations, too, a sure way to stunt momentum.
Because of that, the Caps have put emphasis on the power play and penalty kill between games, right wing Troy Brouwer said. On the ice the power play gets the bulk of the time because it’s nearly impossible to adequately practice penalty killing, given the importance of blocked shots.
But players hope they’ve zeroed in on what’s going wrong on the penalty kill with the advent of video. Brouwer said the biggest issues had to do with not being able to clear the puck and not moving together as a unit. Those problems should be easily correctable.