"Maybe we can put some more pressure on them and not let them stand around and make passes." - Joe Corvo on the Capitals' penalty kill
"From what I've seen, we're a little bit more passive here." - Eric Belanger on the same topic
If the Caps have one glaring fatal flaw in their overall game, one would think it's their penalty kill. Currently ranked 25th in the League overall - and 29th on the road - the Caps looked to bolster that aspect of their special teams at the trade deadline by adding Joe Corvo and Eric Belanger. Instead of achieving the desired results so far, the man-down unit has actually dipped since the deadline, successfully squashing just 70% of the disadvantages they've faced.
And while the unit's general passivity would seem to be an obvious eyebrow-raising point of strategic discussion, the team's tactical approach to the penalty kill seems unlikely to change any time soon. Does that mean that the Caps PK will bring an early end to their spring endeavors? Of course not.
Besides the fact that the Caps are other-worldly good at five-on-five and on the power play - and, to date, they've played more than 86% of their total game time at five-aside or a man or two up - they've been increasingly well-disciplined. Since the deadline they've averaged just 2.9 shorthanded situations per game and two or fewer in more than half of those games.
If the penalty kill isn't going to get any better (and is there any reason to believe it will?), this is how the Caps will have to mitigate their biggest weakness - by not taking bad penalties (such as boarding or goaltender interference on breakaways). After all, it worked for the Red Wings last year, who finished the regular season 25th in the League in penalty killing and had the worst kill of any team that advanced past the first round in the playoffs, but still came within a bounce or two of repeating as Cup champs. The Wings faced the second-fewest power plays per game of any of last year's playoff teams, so the fact that they only successfully killed 73.2% of them didn't turn around and kill their playoffs.
Put another way, a team that is shorthanded three times per game over a seven-game series and kills at a 78.4% rate (as the Caps currently have, season-to-date) will give up between four and five power-play goals over the course of that series. A team that is shorthanded five times per game over a seven-game series and kills at an 86.1% rate (as the top teams in the League currently do) will give up... between four and five goals over the course of that series. But once that discipline slips, so to, of course, do the goals against - give the Caps four penalties to kill per game over a seven-game series and you're over six power-play goals allowed (and given their abilities at even strength and five-aside, six power-play goals against in seven games probably still has the Caps in the "safe" zone).
All of this isn't to say that the Caps' poor penalty killing isn't a problem - it most certainly is, quite possibly a critical one. And if the Caps could right the ship just a bit there, they'd be that much more dominant overall. But the fact remains that bad penalty killing is only really as big a problem as bad discipline (and the latter would seem more easily corrected); as long as the Caps can keep the penalties to a minimum, they stand every chance of being able to overcome their Achilles heel and achieve what they've set out to achieve.