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Caps successfully change how they kill penalties

by Dan Rosen
ARLINGTON, Va. -- With the offensive firepower they have in Alex Ovechkin and Co., how is it that the Washington Capitals are creating noise by what they're doing on the penalty kill?

Well, when you go from 25th in the NHL last season to perfection so far this season, it's going to get noticed.

The Capitals will eventually give up a power-play goal, perhaps as soon as Thursday's game in Boston (7 p.m., NHL-N, CSN-DC, NESN), but their run of 25 straight kills is the most unexpected statistic they've put up so far this season. In the five seasons since the work stoppage their PK has ranked 23rd or lower four times, and they were No. 17 in 2008-09.

"The penalty-kill guys are blocking the shots, keeping the puck out, playing hard," said captain Alex Ovechkin, who watches the PK guys work from the bench and benefits from the momentum they create with a kill. "If we need to kill it we know those guys are going to kill it. Our coaching staff has done a great job with the system that we have to play on the penalty kill."

The system here is the story. Just about everything the Capitals are doing this season is different from last season.

Instead of letting the point guys pass the puck back and forth to create a shooting lane, the Capitals are pressuring the points to take away the shot. That leads to less scrambles in front of the net, which is where a lot of power-play goals are scored.

"Last year, it was kind of a shooting gallery," defenseman Tom Poti said. "We had everyone down low and left the point guys open and they used to take bombs away. When teams take shots like that and get pucks through it's a mess down low with the extra forward they have. Our forwards are doing a really good job up high by not letting those guys make plays and take shots."

David Steckel, who averages almost three minutes per game on the PK, said the Capitals noticed what other teams were doing well against their power play last season and have implemented some of those tactics.

"Last year, the way we were playing it was, 'OK, let's block shots, stay together as a four, go to pressure if you have a chance, but if not stay in passing lanes,' " Steckel told "If you go, go, go all the time, I know other teams that have done that to us in the past have had tremendous success. I think our coaches have taken a page, done great scouting, and with the group of forwards we have it works well."

Washington is also blocking shots. Three of its 12 blocked shots in Tuesday's game came on the PK, including two by Brooks Laich during a Bruins' 5-on-3 for 53 seconds in the second period. They had six blocked shots on the PK, including three in a row by Karl Alzner, in Saturday's overtime win against Nashville.

"We're moving a little bit more as a PK unit," Nicklas Backstrom told "Usually we're standing still, but we're more aggressive, especially on the point. We have to be blocking shots, too."

The Capitals used mainly two or three sets of forwards to kill penalties last season, so their shifts were longer and it wasn't as easy to win the battles in front of the net. This season, they're consistently using four or five sets of killers, so the shifts are shorter, the bursts are better and the forwards can pressure more in all three zones.

"You can't do it with four or six if you want to play this way," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "This is a high-energy type of thing."

Seven forwards are averaging more than a minute of shorthanded ice time per game and rookie Marcus Johansson is at 59 seconds. Alexander Semin is at 1:53 after playing only 58 seconds per game on the PK last season. Backstrom is up to 1:35 from 1:05 last season. Jason Chimera is up 47 seconds to 1:21.

"The goal is to outwork those five guys, just like when you're on the power play you have to outwork those four, and you can't outwork five guys if you're taking 50-second to a minute shifts voluntarily," Steckel said. "If you get stuck in the zone that's one thing, but we're going out there for between 20 and 35 seconds. We get the puck down and get new guys on so when the penalty is over guys can continue on their regular shift, too."

They're also being more aggressive in the other two zones. For instance, during a penalty kill in the second period Tuesday, Mike Knuble held the puck near the opposing goal line for nearly 20 seconds.

"The less time you spend in your zone the better and it's been working in our favor," Poti said. "We scored one shorthanded goal this season with Brooksie (Laich) and we're trying to put pressure down ice to not let them come in so easily like we did last year."

They won't stay perfect, but for once the most telling statistic associated with the Capitals has nothing to do with offense.

"We're not going to go 307-for-307, but we like where it's at right now and we'd love to continue at this pace for as long as we can," Boudreau said. "You have to find what works for us and so far this is working."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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