- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2019

It’s no secret the Washington Capitals are a better team since trading for Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen. Since the second of those trades was completed, the Capitals are 7-1-0, with the NHL’s longest active winning streak of seven games and counting.

It’s also no secret what Hagelin and Jensen were brought to Washington to do: Add speedy skating and penalty-killing prowess.

Yet the Capitals’ 3-1 win Sunday against Winnipeg showed their penalty kill unit has benefitted from the shake-up — because it remained stellar when Hagelin himself had to watch from the penalty box.

Hagelin committed two of Washington’s five penalties Sunday. Without him available, fellow forwards Lars Eller, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Nic Dowd and even a little of T.J. Oshie had to cope with Winnipeg’s man advantage.

They were superb — and at the end of Hagelin’s second penalty, Dowd threw a nice pass out to the neutral zone for Hagelin to pick up and score on a breakaway. Fittingly, it turned out to be the deciding goal.

Washington still ranks 21st in the league in penalty-killing percentage, but the Capitals have now killed 16 straight penalties, including all five against the Jets and all six against the Devils in the previous game.

It’s reminiscent of the 24 consecutive kills they pulled off during one stretch of last year’s playoff run. So it’s no surprise Hagelin, who used to face Washington in the playoffs year after year while with the Penguins and Rangers, doesn’t take much personal credit for the turnaround.

“I think they were pretty good when I got here, too,” Hagelin said. “Maybe they had some unfortunate bounces. But it starts with our goalies. They’ve been great. And then obviously we have big D that know how to box out guys, know how to block shots.”

When Hagelin arrived in Washington, coach Todd Reirden said he made some minor schematic tweaks to his penalty killing.

“I think that we’re getting more comfortable now with what’s expected, kind of what our structure is,” Reirden said. “It took us a little while to totally, I would say, integrate the new way we wanted to kill. Some differences, and we made some minor adjustments along the way.”

Hagelin — thankful his penalty killers bailed him out twice Sunday — said he was able to assimilate into Washington’s unit easily because “I got thrown in it right away, my first game.”

“I think in games is where you really learn,” he said. “Practice is always practice. You go hard and you try your best. But in games, that’s when you get that chemistry with your linemates and your killers.”

On the back end of the penalty-killing unit, Jensen didn’t see a load of ice time Sunday, either. Matt Niskanen led all Capitals with 6:08 of shorthanded time, and he made a crucial block while the Capitals had to defend a 5-on-3. Late in the first, he caught a Patrik Laine one-timer on his hand; he missed the rest of the period to get it checked out, but was good to return for the rest of the game.

“It was kind of an unfortunate penalty and then Nisky eats one of the hardest shots in the league right in the arm,” Tom Wilson said. “He’s as tough as they come. Little efforts like that go a long way.”

Laine said the Capitals “were pressuring us pretty hard, so we couldn’t really settle down.” Backstrom likely would have been glad to hear that review.

“We’re a little more aggressive, too, which sometimes makes it harder for the power play,” Backstrom said. “That’s something we’ve got to keep doing. It’s a big key in today’s game so I think it’s so important, especially tonight.”

Backstrom also felt the penalty-kill players were more committed to each other now after “things didn’t go our way like the first 50, 60 games.” With the Stanley Cup Playoffs just a month away, the timing couldn’t be better.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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