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Capitals find success with better penalty kill

by Dan Rosen

WASHINGTON -- Shooters pinned to the outside, all the lanes covered, forwards diving in the way of shots, pucks getting cleared down to the other end -- this is not what a 27th-ranked penalty kill looks like.

But it is, and the Washington Capitals lead the New York Rangers 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals because of it.

As critical as the Capitals' power play has been in the first two games against Rangers (2-for-7), the best-of-7 series would be tied or reversed as it shifts to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2) if Washington's penalty kill didn't go a combined 7-for-7 in Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center.

"We're not looking at it as 27th," forward Eric Fehr said after Washington's 1-0 overtime win in Game 2 Saturday. "I think if you look at the last 20 games of the season, we were right up there in the penalty kill. We changed a few things and we've been a lot better since then. We expect a lot of big things from our PK. We don't think we're 27th in the League."

They don't because Fehr is correct: The Capitals were much better on the PK late in the regular season. Going back to the last 20 games may be a bit much, because the Capitals were 81 percent over that span, but they did go 28-for-33 (84.8 percent) on the PK over their last 12 games.

Their confidence on the PK has carried into the postseason and helped the Capitals win Games 1 and 2 by winning the special teams battle 2-0.

"We had a terrible start for our PK," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "Then we worked ourselves into it, and if you look at the last month we must have been top 15. We tried to build off that into the playoffs."

Terrible is not doing it justice. The Capitals were downright awful on the penalty kill over the first 11 games. They allowed 15 power-play goals on 51 chances (70.5 percent PK) and, as a result, were 2-8-1.

The amount of times they were shorthanded was as big a problem as the amount of power-play goals they were allowing.

The discipline gradually got better along with the penalty kill. Capitals coach Adam Oates said he thinks some of it has to do with conditioning, which was outlined as a major problem for Washington early in the regular season as critics were saying they were a team that wasn't in shape.

"We started with a lot of guys in different types of shape and guys had to play minutes," Oates said. "As the year goes on you get into a rhythm. It's our reads and clears and not giving teams second chances. Probably a little bit of luck in there too."

Probably a little bit of help from the Rangers as well.

"We're just too stagnant," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of his team's power play. "We're almost paralyzed."

Their paralysis cost them in Game 1, when they couldn't score during a 56-second 5-on-3 when the game was tied 1-1 (they lost 3-1). It cost them in Game 2, when they failed to get a shot on goal on power plays late in regulation and early in overtime.

"Those last two power plays have to have better chances," wing Rick Nash said. "We've got to execute on them and score a big goal. We had the opportunities and we didn't get the job done."

The Capitals wouldn't let them. They blocked a combined five shots over those last two penalty kills, giving them 13 on the PK in the first two games. The Rangers' power play has managed 10 shots on goal, two in Game 2.

"It's patience and being calm in the right situations," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said of the improvements he's seen on the penalty kill from the beginning of the season to now. "Guys are coming up with huge blocks and huge plays. It keeps improving. Everyone is learning it. Guys are getting comfortable with who they are playing with, who their PK partners are. It played great and I can see it getting better."


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