Can Washington Capitals' Special Teams Continue Historic Pace?

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Can Washington Capitals' Special Teams Continue Historic Pace?

An NHL team is thought to have excellent special teams when the sum of its power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage is greater than 100 percent. 

In that case, the Washington Capitals' special teams are absolutely brilliant. 

Washington's power-play percentage of 25.64 and penalty-kill percentage of 89.19 add up to a staggering 115.43 percent, and they rank first and second in the NHL, respectively. 

If the Caps are able to maintain this combined special teams percentage at or near its current level, it would be the highest such number in franchise history. The previous high of 106.85 percent was set in 1983-84

This season, the success of one of these special teams units has been a bit of a surprise. Adam Vingan of NHL.com wrote Nov. 7 that Washington penalty-killers "finished in the bottom-third of the NHL nine times in the past 11 seasons."

That's pretty bad. 

So, why are the Capitals suddenly achieving success on the penalty kill? 

Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com explains that there are several reasons for the Capitals' success on the penalty kill, including the partnering of players that are already comfortable with each other from their forward lines and defensive pairings, respectively. 

But the turnaround began with new leadership and a change in philosophy, as Gormley explains: 

Under assistant coaches Dean Evason and Tim Hunter, the Capitals took a more aggressive approach on the penalty kill, attacking the puck when it went from the point to the halfwall and from the halfwall to the goal line. Now, under the direction of assistants Calle Johansson and Blaine Forsythe, they form a defensive box and stay stationary. “Last year we were patient and aggressive at the same time, which kind of messed us up, I think,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “This year we’re pretty patient the entire time. Obviously, if there’s a bobble we’re going after it hard, but we’re trying to have teams beat us. Now, we pretty much give them all the time in the world and just try not to give them any [passing] lanes." 

Washington's vastly improved penalty kill and its potent power play can do much more than simply set a franchise record for highest combined percentage for special teams. One of these units could actually finish on top of the league in their respective category, a rare feat indeed as this franchise enters it 39th season. 

Which special teams category will the Capitals lead at the end of the 2013-14 season?

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Believe it or not, Washington's power-play unit has led the league only twice, both recently. The Caps finished with the best power-play percentage in 2009-10, in addition to last season

Washington's penalty-kill unit actually has a better track record. It has finished as the best in the league on three separate occasions: 1983-84, 1990-91 and 1997-98

If the Capitals are able to finish atop the league in both categories this season, they would do more than make franchise history.

They would make NHL history. 

No NHL team has finished the regular season as the best in both power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage since the 1984-85 New York Islanders

That's a long time ago.

That was a good hockey team. 

As further proof of how hard it is to accomplish this feat, check out the following table that examines the 1984-85 Islanders, along with the two teams that came closest to repeating their accomplishment since that historic season, with each team's number of points and final position in the standings (STDG), as well as percentage of points earned. The power-play and penalty-kill percentages are listed along with each team's rank in that category and the difference (DIFF) between them and their closest competitor in each category: 

Comparison of Three Teams That Excelled at Both Special Teams
YEAR TEAM PTS PTS% STDG PP% RANK DIFF PK% RANK DIFF
84-85 NYI 86 .538 10th 25.63 1st 0.37 82.38 1st 0.01
88-89 CGY 117 .731 1st 24.94 2nd 1.76 82.93 1st 0.19
97-98 DAL 109 .665 1st 20.00 1st 1.08 88.03 2nd 1.20

Hockey-Reference.com

So, can the Capitals finish atop the league in both categories by the end of the season?

Their power-play unit can definitely finish first in the league. The Capitals did so last season and have experienced little turnover since then. Mike Ribeiro has been ably replaced by Mikhail Grabovski, and head coach Adam Oates still deploys the 1-3-1 formation, which is now supervised by first-year assistant coach Blaine Forsythe

Furthermore, the Capitals power play is producing statistical trends that project long-term success, as the following table suggests: 

Capitals' Rank in Specific Power-Play Categories
CATEGORY STAT RANK
Power-Play Opportunities 78 1st
Power-Play Time 106:15 10th
Power-Play Shots 110 5th
Power-Play Goals 20 1st
Power-Play Shooting Percentage 18.2% 2nd

NHL.com

Per the above statistics, the Capitals receive an above-average amount of power-play time. However, they produce a large amount of shots and an extremely high number of goals. 

This opportunistic tendency will continue to serve them well throughout the season. If their amount of power-play time remains stable or even declines slightly, they can continue to be productive. If their amount of power-play time increases, they can begin to distance themselves from the rest of the league. 

When compared to the power play, however, the penalty-kill unit has a much stiffer challenge ahead of itself in terms of finishing the season in first place. Washington's statistical output in a number of specific categories points to the difficulty of its task:  

Capitals' Rank in Specific Penalty-Kill Categories
CATEGORY STAT RANK
Total Penalties 103 30th
Penalty Minutes per Game 14.7 27th
Times Short-Handed 74 28th
Penalty-Kill Time 123:38 28th
Penalty-Kill Shots Against 128 28th

NHL.com

If Washington does not correct these deficiencies, its penalty kill will eventually level off, if not decline dramatically. The law of averages will make sure of it. 

But if Washington is able to correct these flaws—especially the penalty kill shots against—it has a legitimate chance to make history. 

Washington's quest for immortality will be fascinating to watch all year long, and for reasons beyond the historical significance of the regular season.

Combined success on special teams also translates well to the postseason. Take the three teams previously mentioned for combined power-play and penalty-kill proficiency in the regular season. The 1984-85 New York Islanders and the 1997-98 Dallas Stars both reached the conference finals, and the 1988-89 Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup. 

The 2013-14 Washington Capitals could emulate this trio by using their special teams to become a special team. 

 

Note: All statistics updated through Nov. 12 courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com unless noted otherwise. 

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