There was something about the penalty kill in the infancy of Dale Hunter’s time as Washington Capitals coach that seemed different. While there have been changes in other parts of the Capitals’ game, the penalty kill has had more aggression to it despite being the same. And it has been a marked improvement.
Actually, it’s the same short-handed attack assistant Dean Evason and the Caps put in place last season — but emphasizing movement, attack and other adjustments have made the unit stronger.
Some of it is a matter of developing confidence to go on the attack down five-on-four.
“Certainly our penalty kill — we’ve always asked them to be aggressive,” Evason said. “And when they’re confident, then we’re more aggressive and it probably looked that way in the last few games.”
Take away the Florida Panthers’ 3-for-6 power play proficiency Monday, and the Caps’ penalty kill is 13-for-14 since Hunter took over. It has been a commitment to speed and aggression that has produced results.
And players know they can achieve that balance if they’re well-rested.
According to Evason, that was one of the first things Hunter wanted to change — ideally keeping shifts to 20 seconds. Washington always has featured deep penalty killing with four good units, and rolling through them consistently prevents fatigue.
“As soon as we get the puck down, we get off,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “The more fresh you can stay, the more aggressive you can be. I think there’s a few times where we were getting trapped down [in our own zone] for too long. Then, at least the way we kill, it goes to nothing.”
Monday’s letdown against Florida was a noticeable departure from penalty kills of late, something Evason blamed on diverting from the plan.
“We got a couple goals scored against us, and then we sat back and were very passive. When we’ve been successful on the penalty kill, we’ve been aggressive, we’ve put pressure on teams, not allowed them to set up,” he said. “Unfortunately, we allowed Florida to do that, and they used their skill to hurt us.”
Evason said one of the issues was the Capitals blocking just four shots — total — against the Panthers. He said the coaching staff communicated to players that with six power plays against, four blocked shots simply was “unacceptable.”
Also unacceptable thing was a rash of penalties, which sapped penalty killers of energy and focus.
“Anytime you give up that many it just wears a group down, and it gives the other team more looks. I don’t think we did a good job staying aggressive,” center Jeff Halpern said. “[Wednesday] We were trying to do a little better job of making it hard for them to set up into the looks they wanted. In Florida, they pretty much got the zone uncontested and were able to dig pucks out of corners uncontested.”
But penalties are going to happen. In an ideal world, the units can get into a groove rotating through and producing energy from the aggressive play.
With the likes of Alzner, center Brooks Laich, Halpern and even star center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman John Carlson getting significant penalty-killing minutes, the talent is there. The execution comes, at least in part, from that depth and the ability to keep moving and disrupting opposing power plays.
“If you’re not fresh, then you can’t play the type of system that we want to play and that’s to be as aggressive and have all four guys going and working as one unit,” Evason said. “Certainly our changes in being fresh are key to us being successful.”