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What's Killing the Capitals' Penalty Kill?

The new look penalty kill instituted by Barry Trotz looks like a shot-prevention success, but came with a fair degree of risk. That risk may have been too much for Trotz to swallow.

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

For virtually the entirety of Alex Ovechkin's career the Washington Capitals have struggled on the penalty kill. While the kill was never a strength of the team, last season took the penalty killing struggles to the extreme, posting historically bad numbers in terms of Corsi- , Fenwick- and Shots-Against per sixty minutes (CA/60, FA/60, and SA/60, respectively). Only a strong performance in net saved the Caps from a worse penalty killing efficiency rate than the 82% the team posted last year.

Everybody knew the Caps would need to improve on the penalty kill (though it was conveniently ignored by some when discussing a particular lightning rod contract signed this summer). Now, nearly halfway into the season, we can take a look at the Barry Trotz penalty kill and start to determine whether or not the Caps have, in fact, improved the longstanding team weakness.

At first glance, the 78.9% penalty kill efficiency looks like the Caps have actually taken a step back in terms of their penalty kill. Looking at the underlying numbers, however, the Caps seem to have made a substantial improvement on the PK. Last year their CA/60 was 116.1, worst in the league. This year it's a middle-of-the-pack 99.1. Last year the FA/60 was also a league-worst, 89.6. This year it's 73.3. Finally, last year the SA/60 was 64, also worst in the league. This year they are at 50, which puts them (barely) in the top half of the league. Aside from the general across-the-board improvement, the Caps are blocking more shot attempts, and opponents are getting fewer unblocked shot attempts on net than they did last year. All of these things seem like they should contribute to a successful penalty kill.

So how are the Caps less successful on the penalty kill despite what appears to be a substantial improvement? For starters, the difference between last year's efficiency and this year's efficiency is almost entirely due to the goaltending they received last year compared to this year. This year the team has gotten 85.99% save percentage while shorthanded, ranking 23rd in the league. Last year it was 90.42%, good for third in the league. (It's a little scary to think that the 2013-14 Capitals' penalty kill could have been much, much worse if not for outstanding goaltending, and it wasn't just Braden Holtby - the Caps got great goaltending from their backups last year as well.)

But it's not be entirely fair to put everything on the goalies. For one, penalty kill save percentage is notoriously volatile (which is why even-strength save percentage is generally accepted to be the best measure of a goalie's talent). It may not truly be a matter of the goalies playing "outstanding" last year while playing poorly this year (although there has surely been some bad goaltending on the penalty kill this year, especially during the losing streak). Sometimes that's just how random fluctuations work, and we interpret the results as talent-based when that may not be the case.

Further, in reviewing the goals against the Caps have allowed on the penalty kill there are some observations that may help explain the penalty killing woes. The Caps have employed a more aggressive penalty kill this year and it appears to be a part of the reason for the decreased CA/60, FA/60, and SA/60. The Caps are giving teams less time and space with the puck and are more aggressively pressuring loose pucks, ultimately resulting in less controlled zone time for the opposition.

With that aggressive posture, though, comes a certain degree of risk. When penalty killers are aggressively chasing the power play opponents, that increases the chances of a breakdown and a great scoring chance. We've seen situations throughout the season in which the Caps penalty killers have lost a battle or been beaten by a pass and then lost the race back to the front of the net, giving up easy Grade-A scoring chances. Take a look at a couple glaring examples.

Against Toronto:

Brooks Orpik chased the puck to the corner but a quick reverse put the puck in the other corner, so John Carlson chased and there was nobody covering the front of the net. Tyler Bozak drove the slot and beat Orpik back to the net for an easy goal.

And against Vancouver:

This time Carlson was the first defender to chase the puck to the corner, and a quick reverse left the Caps in brutal defensive posture as Orpik chased the pass (no, the defensive posture wouldn't have been much better even had Orpik not taken a horrific angle to chase that pass). The Caps never caught up with the puck and it left a Sedin wide open in front of the net for another easy goal.

And against Columbus:

After Jack Johnson dove down the wing he passed the puck back to the point and another quick pass to the low corner reversed the ice (sensing a theme?). The Caps all turned to pressure the puck after the cross-ice pass, but they forget to account for Johnson, who never returned to his position at the point and picked up an easy goal in front.

In all three of these examples, the Caps defenders got caught out of position near the crease because they were out pressuring the power-play unit.  The goals against and defensive coverage are certainly ugly, but the problems should be correctable.

Further contributing to some of the penalty killing woes, the Caps have made a concerted decision not to engage power play forwards setting up shop in front of Holtby. You won't find a better example than in the last game against the New Jersey Devils:

NJ PK

Orpik and Carlson were content to let Adam Henrique stand right in front of Holtby. It didn't cost the Caps in this game, and it doesn't usually cost the Caps, but it does put pressure on Holtby to make the first save and control the rebounds. It also puts pressure on the defenders to react quickly to the shot and pivot to cover the opposing forward in front of the net. When the defensemen can't make the play, ugly goals against happen. Like against Columbus:

Carlson wasn't really close to Nick Foligno, despite no other net-front threat, and Karl Alzner was unable to slide down to provide assistance on the rebound. Foligno had all day to bang home a rebound for an easy goal.

Or against Florida:

Orpik immediately reacted to the rebound and tried to engage Sean Bergenheim after the rebound, but he missed the initial stick check and then had his stick at waist height when he finally initiated contact with Bergenheim. An easy pass across the crease left Brad Boyes a wide open net for an easy goal.

Or you could look at the goal they allowed against San Jose or against Calgary or against Toronto. You get the point.

Now, most of these goals-against are pretty ugly and seem like pretty easy opportunities for the opposition. That's the nature of the NHL - highly skilled players with an extra guy can make most teams look bad. The concern is to not let those goals against unduly taint the overall picture of the penalty kill. As noted above, the underlying measures indicate a stronger penalty kill than the Caps have seen in the past. We've talked about the need to persevere and not overreact to The Big Mistake, and perhaps the penalty kill could be added to that discussion. The unit is performing better than it has in the past, but the results aren't there. Yet.

Unfortunately, recent results indicate that either a) the Caps have stopped playing very well on the penalty kill, and/or b) the coaching staff has changed up the penalty killing approach in the face of The Big Mistakes, moving to a more conservative approach, undercutting the foundations for the penalty kill's success so far this year. Take a look at the last several games:

Recent PK

The Caps have given up higher CA/60 and FA/60 over the last couple weeks, sometimes substantially so. There are a couple of solid performances in there (generally against teams with no offensive threat to speak of), and the nature of individual games is such that we'll often see outcomes that diverge from the expected, sometimes wildly so. Still, without overreacting to the recent stretch there is room for some concern. Three-straight games, and five-out-of-six overall, have seen CA/60 higher than the season average, usually by a significant margin. The change appears to come on the heels of the two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, during which the Caps gave up three power play goals (two of which are highlighted above).

More starkly, we can look at the changes in rates from the start of the season. From the start of the season until December 12 (following the first of the two games against the Blue Jackets), the Caps had a CA/60 of 95.2 and a FA/60 of 69.4. Since December 12, the Caps have a CA/60 of 117.2 and a FA/60 of 89.7. Those are 23% and 29% increases, respectively, and given that the FA/60 has grown more than the CA/60 it appears the team isn't blocking shots at the same rate that it was earlier in the season, meaning that more shot attempts are getting through the penalty killers. Those post-December-12 numbers look an awful lot like last year's numbers (emphasis on awful), which is not promising.

It may not be time to panic, but this bears watching. Whether the Caps are intentionally playing less aggressively, thus ceding more shot attempts against in an attempt to better protect the crease, remains to be seen. This could be a short term blip on a long term penalty killing improvement project. Or it could be another Big Mistake that caused the coaching staff to switch things up, possibly to the detriment of the team.

(H/t to war-on-ice.com for much of the data in this post)