WASHINGTON (AP) — Carl Hagelin watched helplessly from the penalty box as the short-handed unit he helped transform got to work.
Seconds after stepping out following another successful kill, Hagelin scored the go-ahead goal on a breakaway to help the Washington Capitals beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 on Sunday night for their seventh consecutive victory. With players blocking shots and Pheonix Copley stopping the puck, the defending Stanley Cup champions killed off all five minor penalties they took to keep their winning streak alive.
“Obviously I don’t want to be in the box for four minutes like I was, but it turned out OK,” said Hagelin, who took back-to-back penalties in the second period. “It was great to see the guys bail me out.”
Hagelin deserved that payback. Since he and defenseman Nick Jensen joined Washington at the trade deadline, the penalty kill is 19 for 21 and has killed off 16 in a row. For much of the season, a porous penalty kill looked like the Capitals’ biggest obstacle to repeating, and suddenly it has become a strength.
“We’re tweaking things as we go, and we’re getting better, I think, at figuring out what works for us,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who returned after taking a one-timer from Patrik Laine off his left hand during one penalty kill. “It’s taken us some time to figure out what we’re good at and how we want to approach it with our tactics. I think as we’re getting to this time of year, we’re starting to play with a little bit more desperation.”
The desperation was there against the Central Division-leading Jets who put up eight goals on Carolina two days earlier. Washington won despite being outshot 34-17, thanks to the goals by Hagelin and Nicklas Backstrom and an empty-netter from Lars Eller to go along with 33 saves from Copley.
Despite not playing in two weeks, Copley made the most of a somewhat surprising decision to give him the nod over Braden Holtby.
“He was kicking the puck out all night,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “The rebounds were there. We just couldn’t get to them.”
Mathieu Perreault scored Winnipeg’s only goal on a shot Copley had little chance of stopping. The Jets thought they’d tied the score midway through the third period, but officials ruled Bryan Little pushed Copley’s right pad into the net and upheld a coach’s challenge.
Connor Hellebuyck made 15 saves as the Central Division-leading Jets lost the finale of a four-game road trip.
“We played a heck of a road game here,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You don’t like losing when you play well. Their guy made some good saves, they got some good breaks around the net, but our compete was good. You know what? We had five opportunities to score on the power play. That doesn’t go. That hurts you.”
The Capitals’ penalty kill has hurt plenty of opponents during this winning streak and allowed them to look again like a championship contender.
“That’s something we’ve got to keep doing,” Backstrom said. “Things didn’t go our way like the first 50, 60 games, but I feel like everyone is more committed now and we’re blocking shots and we’re working for each other.”
NOTES: Capitals D John Carlson became the third player in franchise history with consecutive 50-assist seasons, joining Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy. ... The Jets continued to be without injured top-four defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey. ... Alex Ovechkin remains one point away from 1,200 in his career.
Jets: Return home to face the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.
Capitals: Open a road trip Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports