Special Teams 101Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
It’s playoff time in Washington, and time to take stock of the Capitals’ special teams. One side of the ledger looks good of late, the other … not so much. The Caps were a disciplined bunch in the season’s last 22 games, encountering just 56 shorthanded situations. Washington successfully killed 48 of those for a 85.7% kill rate. That rate would have been eighth best in the NHL over the full 82 games of the 2011-12 season. The Caps finished with a flourish, killing 18 of 19 (94.7%) over their final nine games of the season. Washington’s power play was not as effective. The Caps went 7-for-52 (13.5%) with the extra man over the same 22-game span, but three of their power play goals during that run were score in the same game, a 5-3 win over the Red Wings in Detroit on March 19. Midway through the season, the Caps featured the league’s best power play on home ice. But after going 2-for-5 with the extra man in a difficult 3-2 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center on Feb. 9, the Caps went nine straight games without a power play goal on home ice. They finished the season just 1-for-36 (2.8%) with the extra man in their last 13 home games, covering a span of nearly two months. “It’s very important,” says Caps center Brooks Laich of the Capitals’ power play. “Both of your special teams are. But if you can score goals on your power play, maybe it takes away from their physical aggressiveness or they’re not as ‘in your face’ if they know that they can’t walk the line and take a penalty. “For us, it’s got to be shots. [Boston’s Tim Thomas] is a very good goaltender. We can’t just look for that cute play. They’re very good in the seams with their sticks; their forwards and their defensemen, both. It’s got to be shots and then we have to have second chances with bodies around the net.” Over the last four springs, the Washington Capitals have played a total of six postseason series totaling 37 games. For the last four of those half-dozen series, Washington’s special teams play has been less than exemplary, and could be pointed at as a main reason for the team’s eventual exit from the playoffs. The Capitals have won two and lost four series in their last four visits to the postseason. In each of those two series wins, Washington has had a special teams index (power play success rate plus penalty kill success rate) of 101 or better. In each of those four series losses, the Caps have been beneath the 101 threshold, and sometimes well below it. In the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against Philadelphia in 2008, the Caps scored eight power play goals (8-for-35, 22.9%) in the seven-game set. That’s the most power play goals the Caps have mustered in any playoff series in the last four springs. Unfortunately, the Caps also allowed the Flyers to score eight power play goals on 36 chances – including Joffrey Lupul’s series-deciding tally in overtime of Game 7 – and their special teams index for the series came in at 100.7. A year later, the Caps authored a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the New York Rangers in the first round. Washington was 6-for-33 (18.2%) with the extra man and it killed off 27 of 31 (87.1%) New York power plays for a special teams index of 105.3 and a series win. After getting past the Blueshirts in the first round in 2009, the Caps faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in an epic Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Capitals were 5-for-19 (26.3) with the extra man, but the Pens nearly doubled up Washington in power play chances (34 to 19) in the seven-game set. The Caps’ overtaxed penalty killing outfit posted a 73.5% (25-for-34) kill rate to give the Caps a special teams index of 99.8 for the series. The Caps’ first-round series against Montreal in 2010 was certainly the team’s most notorious special teams failure in the last four springs. The Caps were 1-for-33 on the power play, a success rate of just three percent. Washington scored one goal on 61 power play shots in 57:05 of power play time. Washington also surrendered a power play goal to the Habs in six of the seven games in that series as the Caps went 24-for-30 on the kill. The result was a dismal special teams index of 83 and a surprising and disappointing first-round exit. A year ago, the Caps pushed their way past the Rangers in five games in the first round. Washington’s power play was merely ordinary at 3-for-16 (18.8%), but the Capitals allowed just one power play goal on 20 New York chances for a kill rate of 95% and a glowing special teams index of 113.8. Tampa Bay was next, and the Lightning swept the Caps in four straight, limiting Washington to two goals on 19 power play tries (10.5%) while the Capitals managed a kill rate of just 77.8% for a special teams index of 88.2 and a premature ouster. Like the rest of their regular season performance, the Caps’ special teams have been up and down this season. Washington finished 18th in the NHL on the power play this season with a success rate of 16.7%, its worst mark of the last five seasons. The Capitals were successful on 81.6% of their penalty killing missions this season (21st in the league) for a special teams index of 98.3. Boston was the best five-on-five team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season (1.32 five-on-five goals to goals against) while Washington ranked seventh at 1.01. If the Caps can put together a string special teams performance against Boston, it could make the difference in a game or two and help push Washington past the Bruins and into the second round.
Last summer, the Washington Capitals inked free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal on his 35th birthday. A proven regular season goaltender for many years in the league, Vokoun was seeking a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Caps had a good young goaltending tandem in Michal Neuvirth