Nicklas Backstrom was without his stick, having thrown it away because it was broken, and he knew that the Washington Capitals couldn’t afford to be down another man.
Thus, when Nick Leddy took possession of the puck at the right point just over 11 minutes into the first period, Backstrom charged. The Capitals’ top-line center, thrust into a greater role on the penalty kill with Eric Fehr out because of an injury, turned just as the New York Islanders defenseman cocked his stick, taking Leddy’s ensuing slap shot directly off his backside.
The shot was one of six blocked by the Capitals on Tuesday night in their 2-1 overtime victory and helped Washington keep a clean sheet in the series when down a man. Heading into Game 5 of the teams’ best-of-seven first-round playoff series on Thursday, the Capitals have killed off all 10 of the Islanders’ power plays — a respectable feat, considering the impact one mistake on special teams can have on the postseason.
“I just think it’s determination,” right wing Joel Ward said. “I think a lot of it is just getting in front of pucks and just sacrificing. We’ve had some key blocks. [Jay Beagle] took a heavy one there yesterday. It’s just a matter of details, but just determination as well.”
Washington killed off four of the Islanders’ power plays on Tuesday, including a nail-biting seven-minute stretch in the second period when three penalties were assessed in rapid fashion. The Capitals survived a kneeing call on right wing Tom Wilson at 3:32 and a charging call against Wilson at 5:54, then withstood a delay of game call against defenseman Mike Green at 8:44 when he sent the puck over the glass.
Beagle, who joined Backstrom as part of the top penalty-killing unit on Tuesday, took the ice after Green headed to the box. Almost immediately, Beagle stepped in front of a slap shot by Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk, taking it somewhere off his lower body and causing him to scramble back to the bench in pain.
The Islanders attempted 11 shots while on the power play, six of which were turned aside by Braden Holtby. Four others were blocked, while one outright missed the net.
“I hope we can kind of look at those three penalty kills there and sort of see that that was the turning point in the series,” Wilson said. “It’s unbelievable. When you get those guys giving it up — Beags with a huge shot block, and all the guys just sacrificing their body and doing whatever it takes to get those penalty kills — I mean, a power-play goal can be the changing of the series, and they stood tall.”
Entering Wednesday’s games, the Capitals were the only team that hadn’t allowed a power-play goal during the postseason. They killed off 81.2 percent of their opponents’ advantages during the regular season, putting them 14th in the league, and went through one five-game stretch in late March when they stopped all 14 attempts.
Washington’s penalty kill is certainly not like its power play, which led the league for the second time in three seasons. But because of that unit’s success, it’s plausible that around the league, the penalty kill may be overlooked.
“That’s actually a really good question,” said Brooks Laich, a veteran penalty killer. “Our power play is tremendous. Our penalty killers have done a good job. Nobody, I think, is really a glory hound or a headline-seeker. Guys, when they’re put on the ice for whatever special team it is, go out there with a lot of pride and try to execute. When they do, whether it’s scoring a goal or killing off a penalty, guys are always excited when you get back to your bench and do your job.”
When coach Barry Trotz took over as the Capitals’ coach last spring, he retained assistant coach Blaine Forsythe, the architect of the power play, and decided not to change a thing. While Trotz tabbed assistant Lane Lambert, who joined him in the move from Nashville, to oversee the penalty kill, Lambert decided to keep many of the Capitals’ previous groupings intact.
Laich, for example, has been paired with Troy Brouwer as part of one unit for parts of the past three seasons. Fehr and Beagle formed another tandem; on the back end, the Capitals turn to Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, their top two defensive pairings.
The familiarity and communication among the players has only helped to breed responsibility and resolve on the unit. And, when one blocks a shot, as in Backstrom’s case, they all understand what it means.
“Guys have been really committed to it,” Brouwer said. “Our D-men have done a great job fronting the opportunities that they have been getting through. We still have some work to do. I feel our clears could be a little bit better, but all in all, guys are doing what it takes right now to try to limit their opportunities on the [power play].”
• Zac Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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