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Altered approach has aided Capitals' penalty kill

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Seeing the Washington Capitals' power play atop the NHL leaderboard should come as no surprise, considering they routinely have hovered near the No. 1 spot for the better part of the past several seasons.

What may come as a shock is that the Capitals' penalty kill, traditionally a liability, has recently joined their formidable power play among the League's elite.

Having finished in the bottom-third of the NHL nine times in the past 11 seasons, Washington's penalty-killing unit enters its game Thursday against the Minnesota Wild in unfamiliar territory -- leading the League at 91.5 percent.

Since the third period of the Capitals' 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12, they successfully have thwarted 40 of their opponents' 41 power-play opportunities, including a stretch of 35 consecutive kills, their longest streak in more than a decade.

"It's something that everybody wants to do -- to be successful on both sides," right wing Alex Ovechkin said. "Power play and penalty kill can win the game and that's very important for you."

Washington's shorthanded success has come as the result of a new, more patient approach installed by assistant coach Calle Johansson, who took over the penalty-killing responsibilities this season. Under the direction of former assistant Tim Hunter last season, Washington's penalty kill was predicated on aggressiveness and chasing the puck with dogged determination. This season the penalty killers are relying on a passive approach, content to hold their positions in a box formation and using more deliberate aggression when called for.

"Last year we were patient and aggressive at the same time which kind of messed us up, I think," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "This year we're pretty patient the entire time. Obviously if there's a bobble we're going after it hard, but we're trying to have teams beat us.

"Now we pretty much give them all the time in the world and just try not to give them any [passing] lanes."

Another new wrinkle is the forward and defense pairings that are killing penalties are players accustomed to playing with each other at even-strength.

For example, left wing Brooks Laich and right wing Troy Brouwer, Washington's top penalty-killing forwards, are linemates, while Alzner is partnered with John Carlson. That built-in chemistry, not to mention the added benefit of coach Adam Oates' preference for placing players on their strong sides, has been a boon to their success.

"When we're able to keep our lines the same, even if it is [even-strength] or shorthanded, it just makes it easier for the transition going into the [penalty kill]," Brouwer told "You don't have to try and mix and match guys and then you have the familiarity that you're always on the ice with the same guy."

For every strength, though, there is a weakness. The Capitals have allowed 100 4-on-5 shots this season, fourth-most in the League. While goaltenders Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have stopped all but three of them, that otherworldly save percentage certainly is unsustainable.

And of course, to kill penalties, a team has to take them. Washington, which has faced 22 power plays in the past four games, is averaging 4.6 minors per game and its 101:42 of total shorthanded time ranks 25th.

Discipline is an area in which the Capitals must improve, but as they work toward developing that discipline, at least they know they have a safety net to fall back on.

"We've taken way too many [penalties] in the past couple games," Brouwer said, "but it's nice to know we have that confidence."

Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Minnesota Wild for their game Thursday at Verizon Center.


Martin Erat - Nicklas Backstrom - Alex Ovechkin

Brooks Laich - Marcus Johansson - Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera - Mikhail Grabovski - Joel Ward

Aaron Volpatti - Michael Latta - Tom Wilson

Karl Alzner - John Carlson

Nate Schmidt - Mike Green

Alexander Urbom - Steve Oleksy

Braden Holtby

Michal Neuvirth

Scratched: Jay Beagle, Eric Fehr, Dmitry Orlov

Injured: John Erskine (upper body), Jack Hillen (fractured tibial plateau)


Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Charlie Coyle

Nino Niederreiter - Mikael Granlund - Jason Pominville

Matt Cooke - Kyle Brodziak - Justin Fontaine

Dany Heatley - Zenon Konopka - Torrey Mitchell

Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin

Nate Prosser - Clayton Stoner

Jared Spurgeon - Marco Scandella

Josh Harding

Niklas Backstrom

Scratched: Mathew Dumba

Injured: Mike Rupp (lower body), Keith Ballard (upper body)

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