Although the Capitals' penalty killing percentage is not in the lofty reaches of the mid- to upper-80s where it was for much of last season, the shorthanded outfit has helped deliver several of the team's recent victories with clutch kills with Washington protecting a lead and with the game on the line.
But just as they've lived by the kill of late, the Caps died by the kill on Monday against the Calgary Flames at Capital One Arena.
The Flames skated off with a 4-1 victory, handing the Capitals their third loss in their last four games. Each of the Flames' last three tallies came as the result of a Calgary power play; the second and third Flames tallies were official power play strikes while the fourth was scored just as another Calgary man advantage was expiring.
"We just weren't able to clear pucks," laments Caps coach Barry Trotz of his penalty killers on this night. "We had a couple of chances to clear in front of our net. We had a couple of times it was on our stick, and they converted on it."
All that said, the Capitals also didn't do enough at five-on-five to win Monday's game.
Video: Eller lights the lamp as Caps lose to Flames, 4-1
The Caps got an early jump on the Flames on the scoreboard, taking a 1-0 lead just over a minute into the game. From the half wall in his own end of the ice, Washington winger Tom Wilson sent a long lead pass for linemate Jakub Vrana. Vrana used his speed to beat Flames defender Travis Hamonic back to the Calgary zone, collecting the puck and curling around the back of the cage. He fed Lars Eller in front, and Eller fired it home from in tight, beating Flames goalie Mike Smith and lifting the Capitals to a 1-0 lead just 62 seconds after the opening puck drop.
As it turned out, though, that was the high water mark of the night for Washington, at least as far as the scoreboard was concerned.
Calgary didn't need much time to respond. The Flames caught the Caps in transition, tying the game at 4:49.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | November 20
Washington gained entry into the Calgary zone, but turned the puck over high in the Flames' end. Worse, both Washington defenders were clustered on the same side of the ice. So when Calgary's Sean Monahan quick-upped the puck to Johnny Gaudreau in neutral ice, the latter had some running room. He was able to drive down to the top half of the right circle easily, and from there he beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby to the far side, squaring the score.
The second period belonged to the Flames. Eller went to the box for hooking at 3:28, and the Flames took advantage of the extra man to take their first lead of the night. Just before Eller was to be sprung, the Flames put a couple of quick shots on Holtby from in tight. He had the answer for both of them, but couldn't locate the puck after the second one. Unfortunately for Holtby and the Caps, Monahan found it first and roofed it from the paint, giving the Flames a 2-1 lead. The goal came at 5:22 of the second, six seconds before Eller's penalty was to expire.
Washington didn't have much going on offensively in the second. The Caps went nearly nine minutes without generating a shot on net in the middle of the period - a stretch that included a Washington power play - and the three shots they managed early in the frame all came from long distance. The Caps rallied a bit late, getting some offensive zone time and putting some pucks in the direction of Flames goalie Mike Smith, but they entered the third down a goal at 2-1.
Calgary owned a 27-13 bulge in second-period shot attempts.
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | November 20
"They took the game over," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen of the Flames in the second period. "All of a sudden, it was tough to get any free ice to skate on. We either didn't execute well enough or work hard enough to get enough sustained pressure to really be dangerous. It was just kind of a 'blah' game for us."
Washington had a chance to pull even early in the third when Flames captain Mark Giordano was sent off for hooking just 33 seconds into the final frame. But the Capitals' top power play unit was unable to generate a shot on net during the man advantage. The Caps' second unit - which has yet to score with the extra man this season - poured three shots on Smith in the waning seconds of the power play, but Calgary and its veteran netminder held that one-goal lead.
The Flames' chance to add to their cushion came when Caps winger Brett Connolly was busted for a hi-sticking infraction in the offensive zone, just over a minute after the Flames successfully snuffed out the Giordano penalty.
Calgary made good, getting a Mikael Backlund goal from down low to take a 3-1 lead at 4:38. Worse yet for Washington, ex-Flame Alex Chiasson was sent off for slashing on the play, sending the Caps down a man yet again. Giordano floated a wrist shot through a screen just one second after Chiasson exited the box, netting the Flames' fourth unanswered goal and closing out the scoring for the contest.
Video: Caps 365 | November 20
"I think we did some good things defensively," says Gaudreau of his team's game on Monday. "We cleaned up our neutral zone a little bit. Last game, we kind of kept it too open for Philadelphia. We tightened it up a little bit.
"We gave up a quick goal there, but found a way to stick with it and tie the game. And then some big power-play goals for our team, and some big [penalty kills]."
For the Caps, Monday's loss was a frustrating step backwards after a hopeful performance in a 3-1 win over Minnesota on Saturday.
"It's obviously not the result we wanted," says Holtby. "But I can't really comment on how we played. I know that I need to make some saves. There were some stoppable pucks there, and that's the difference."