Capitals’ penalty kill has rounded into one of NHL’s best units

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Caps’ penalty kill has rounded into one of NHL’s best units originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Capitals’ turnaround has been the result of many different factors. Alex Ovechkin averaged nearly a goal per game for six weeks. Goaltending emerged as a strength with both netminders going on impressive runs. Many of the depth players they acquired over the offseason have gotten off to terrific starts with their new team.

One of the most significant turnarounds, however, has been the penalty kill. The Capitals instituted a new PK system this season under assistant Scott Allen, the lone coaching change Washington made last summer after Scott Arniel departed for the Winnipeg Jets. It took a few weeks into the season for them to get Allen’s system down, but the results have since shown.

The turnaround began Nov. 23, when the Capitals beat the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in overtime to snap a four-game winless streak. The penalty kill unit was a driving force in the win, preventing the Flyers from converting on any of their four chances. Washington began the day with a 78.3% penalty kill rate. In 23 games since, it boasts an 85% rate, good for fourth in the NHL.

“I think we’ve just kind of gotten slowly better and better at the system we’re running,” said defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who leads the team in penalty kill ice time. “Obviously, we got a new guy running the PK so it’s gonna be a little different here and there so in the beginning of the year it felt like we were giving up one a game. So lately we’ve kind of figured it out. I think we got a good group of guys killing and that always helps.”

Allen arrived in D.C. this offseason with a strong track record of successful penalty killing dating back to his time with the Arizona Coyotes (2017-19) and Florida Panthers (2016-17). He was tasked with maintaining the high level of success the Capitals enjoyed with Arniel; Washington ranked 24th, sixth, fifth and 12th in penalty kill rate during his four seasons, respectively.

The Capitals’ new system under Allen wasn’t a complete overhaul, but there were philosophical shifts in what aspects of opponents’ power-play units they would try to take away. He introduced the system during training camp and it took time for players to adapt especially with key penalty killers like Tom Wilson, John Carlson and Martin Fehervary suffering injuries.

“I thought Scotty Arniel did a good job from last year and it really showed in the playoffs,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “Then Scott Allen came in and it’s a little bit of a different system. Both pressure down ice, neutral zone defense and then in-zone play. So, I do think there was a little bit of a learning curve there at the beginning. I thought Scott Allen has done an excellent job at just sticking to his guns on what he believes in.”

Now, the Capitals’ penalty kill is on a roll. They’ve killed all five penalties called against them over their last three games and have gone 26 straight games allowing one power-play goal or fewer. Forty-one of the Capitals’ 43 games fit that criteria, the best in the league.

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No forward registered more ice time on the penalty for the Capitals last season than Wilson, and he just made his season debut Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Laviolette is giving him a chance to get acclimated with his linemates and on the team’s second power play unit before inserting him into the penalty kill, but eventually he’ll reclaim his spot there as well.

“We will eventually start to work Tom back into the penalty kill,” Laviolette said Tuesday. “The penalty kill did a great job winning us a game the other night. So, there’s no real need to jump him in there on the first shift but we’ll find opportunities. Somebody, a penalty killer, will go to the box and then we’ll push Tom out on the ice and we’ll get him killing penalties. Once his confidence starts to grow that’s when you start to take on more minutes.”