The Capitals’ penalty kill is one of the best in the National Hockey League, and aside from its main job of not allowing other teams to score on the power play, it’s also a pretty big threat to score some goals of its own. The Caps’ penalty kill units may have only scored five shorthanded goals in the regular season, but they can create a lot of chances while down a man. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ CJ Witt takes a look at the good guys’ penalty killing compared to other Eastern Conference playoff teams.
The primary job of a penalty kill is obviously, not allowing goals. While the Caps have killed 83.8% of the opposition’s man-advantages – a good number in today’s offensive-minded NHL – there is the potential for it to be even better. There are many a fan who believes that “a penalty kill is more important than the power play”. And one doesn’t have to go back far to get evidence of this.
Take the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. During their run to the title that spring, the Bruins’ power play converted 11.4% of the time they were on the man-advantage. Their penalty kill killed off 84.4% of their opponent’s power plays. The 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings possessed a 12.8% power play conversion rate and their penalty kill an outstanding 92.1%. The 2013 champion Chicago Blackhawks, finished the postseason with a mediocre 11.4% power play conversion rate, but had an excellent 90.8% on the penalty kill.
What do these teams have in common? They won the Stanley Cup. Going back to the 2005-06 season (the first season after the 2004-05 lockout season), there has been just one team who has won the Stanley Cup with a PK% below 80%, and that was the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks, who in the playoffs had a 79% kill rate on the penalty kill.
11.4, 12.8, 11.4, 17.9, 18.9, 15.2, These are just some of the power play percentages of Cup winners since the 2005-06 season. Fans have seen teams win Cups with bad or average power plays multiple times in the last decade, but have yet to see teams win championships with a bad or average penalty kill. What does any of this have to do with the Capitals one might ask? It’s already been pointed out Washington is 83.8% on the penalty kill, and that’s good. The Capitals were successful 86% of the time on the penalty kill against Eastern Conference teams that MISSED the playoffs, and only successful 79.7% of the time against Eastern Conference teams that DID make the playoffs. If that 79.7% was its own team, it would rank 22nd in the NHL.
The reason these numbers are important is due to the fact the Capitals are going to have to fight off some very good, lethal power plays in the playoffs and they will face them early. Right off the bat, the Caps face the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had the second-best power play percentage in the NHL with 23.8%. The Capitals killed 11 of 15 penalties against the Leafs during the regular season, an unimpressive 73.3%.
If the Capitals get past Toronto in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs like most expect them to do, they may have to go on to play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. The Penguins had the third-best power play in the NHL with a 23.1% conversion rate. Washington’s penalty kill efficiency against them during the regular season was a dismal 66.7%. If Pittsburgh loses in the first round, the Caps would instead play the Columbus Blue Jackets, who they had a kill rate of 86.7% against. The Blue Jackets had the twelfth-ranked power play at 19.9%.
If the Caps can get to the Conference Finals it gets much better. On the penalty kill, they killed eight of nine against the New York Rangers, ten of eleven versus the Ottawa Senators, and eight of nine versus the Montreal Canadiens. The only team to possibly worry about in terms of penalty killing effectiveness would be the Boston Bruins, against whom they only killed five of eight, or 62.5%.
A while ago I pointed out some stats from Capitals netminder Braden Holtby. What we talked about was how Holtby MIGHT not be the best goalie when his team is penalty killing. To summarize, the Capitals have two good penalty killing units. With Holtby in net, the Caps average just 2.96 power play shots against per game. His save percentage while shorthanded is just .839, third-worst in the NHL among goalies who have played more than 200 minutes. His save percentage is better than only Calvin Pickard of the Colorado Avalanche (.8392) and Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars (.811).
John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks has a .911 save, good enough to be the best in the league. When comparing the two clubs, the Capitals PK is 83.8% successful, the Ducks a fourth-best 84.7. Washington gives up 2.96 power play shots a game, compared to Anaheim’s 4.51. The Caps give up 1.22 high danger power play shots, the Ducks a slightly higher 2.03.
Braden Holtby is an elite goalie. There is no doubting that. However, there is room for him to improve while his team is a man down. If things go according to numerous predictions, the first two teams the Capitals will face in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be Toronto and Pittsburgh. The Capitals penalty kill efficiency against these two teams is a combined 70.3%.
Perhaps the best thing about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that everything that happened in the regular season doesn’t matter anymore. Whatever negatives occurred in the season can be corrected in the playoffs. The Capitals will probably be hoping their penalty killing against Eastern Conference playoff teams will be better this spring, and if that happens, they will only be even more dangerous.
By CJ Witt