Five times Tuesday, the Washington Capitals got to do what they like most. The power play is always one of their best weapons, with Alexander Ovechkin one of the best ever in those situations, and the Capitals got five chances on it to try to stage a comeback against the Florida Panthers.
Five times, the Panthers denied them and it let them pull away for a 5-2 win in Sunrise.
It was no outlier, either. Although its penalty kill still ranks in the bottom half of the league, Florida has found a successful formula in the last week or so. In their last five games, the Panthers have gone 19 of 21 on the penalty kill, killing off 90.5 percent of all opposing power plays.
“The PK’s dialing it in,” forward Carter Verhaeghe said Tuesday. “We have a lot of confidence back there in Bob and our PK guys.”
The boost has come from a few major rotational changes and the natural progression of learning a new coach’s system.
At the top, it starts with a change in the first alignment.
On Nov. 3, coach Paul Maurice pulled star center Aleksander Barkov off the top penalty-kill unit, swapping in Eric Staal and Eetu Luostarinen as the top forwards. It was a ploy to try to cut back on some of Barkov’s minutes and it has, in turn, coincided with an improvement on the penalty kill.
The Panthers (9-6-1) haven’t given up multiple power-play goals in any game since.
“Both long guys, good sticks,” Maurice said Tuesday, “they’re shot blocking, they’re getting to some pucks.”
It leads to a deeper penalty kill, too. As long as the top group holds up, Barkov and fellow center Anton Lundell hop onto the ice.
Right when most power plays are expecting to see an opening against a second penalty-kill unit, Florida sends out arguably its two best defensive forwards.
“He and Lundell go out for kind of that key second faceoff,” Maurice said, “and then they were strong enough tonight that we were able to come back with Staal and Luostarinen — like double shift them on the PK.”
Despite the extended shorthanded time, the Panthers only gave up three high-danger chances to Washington’s power play.
Florida was particularly good at cleaning up any messes around Sergei Bobrovsky. The star goaltender was perhaps the Panthers’ best player Tuesday — his 41 saves were his most in a game since January — and the recipe to success on the power play is often forcing a goalie to make an initial save and then using the numbers advantage to flood the net for a rebound.
The Capitals only got three rebound attempts in their 10 power-play minutes. Florida is playing with the defensive cohesion — tight around the net and, right now, rarely out of position — Maurice was hoping to implement when he took over as coach in June.
On 23 penalty kills since making the lineup change, the Panthers have given up just 15 high-danger chances and 10 rebound chances.
“It’s a detail — little details, little things after the shot. ... It’s just a collective effort. All four guys and the goalie compete and try to do their best,” Bobrovsky said. “Good box outs, too — I can see the puck from the blue line and I can control the rebounds better, as well.”
Florida’s penalty kill is now up to 77.4 percent — it was down at 71.8 percent at the start of November — and it will get another major test Thursday against the Dallas Stars at FLA Live Arena. The Stars (9-5-2) currently have the NHL’s second best power play at 33.3 percent.
The Panthers have believed in their 5-on-5 ability all year and in recent weeks their special-teams units have started clicking, too.
“PK is as important as our power play,” Maurice said, “and those guys own it.”