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.
“You see when there’s a moment to jump, one guy will go, but the other guys are a little bit tentative on their reads,” Brouwer said. “You got to trust your players that are out on the ice with you. Just jump, and if one guy goes, everyone goes.
“The other thing, too, is with the clears sometimes you don’t have a whole lot of time to get it out, so you’re just swinging and hoping. But a lot of the time, you’ve got a half-second to get your head up and you got to be able to make a full ice clear.”
Sometimes it is just bad luck, like when defenseman Karl Alzner’s stick broke Sunday, allowing Penguins star Evgeni Malkin ample time to find a passing lane for a layup goal by Chris Kunitz.
But bad luck can’t be an excuse on the power play. The speed of puck movement has been criticized, and justly so, even though Oates doesn’t believe the problem is too much passing.
“I’d like to establish the shot from Mike [Green] sooner, if we could, because if he can get the puck to the net, we have good rebound positions and it’ll make them feel pressure that they’re getting beat and maybe we can capitalize on a mistake from that,” the coach said.
“You watch Pittsburgh: They’ve got five guys out there that want the puck and there’s only one puck. When it comes to the power play, you kind of have to have a set of rules. To me, we put the puck in Nick’s hands and he’s going to be the first guy that has to make the decision.”
Backstrom, who quarterbacks the first power-play unit, said more shots would be preferable.
“Traffic in front of the net, probably move the puck a little bit quicker,” he said. “That’s what I think.”
With games being called tighter and more time being spent on special teams, the Caps know they need to tighten up in both areas.
“Nowadays, that’s the thing that wins you games,” Brouwer said. “And that’s the thing that wins you games in the playoffs, which is more important.”