The good news: The Capitals have the league’s best penalty kill. The bad news: Washington has been short-handed 59 times this season, the sixth most in the league. The Capitals have committed 86 penalties, fourth-most in the NHL behind Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Toronto. Even after his team’s emphatic 6-2 victory Tuesday, Capitals Coach Adam Oates was quick to point out his team had committed “too many penalties,” a phrase he’s uttered several times in postgame press conferences this season.
Those penalties have not yet hurt Washington on the scoreboard, as the team’s 91.5 penalty-kill percentage has allowed just four penalties to turn into goals. But with the Capitals’ penalty-killing units on ice for a total of 56:55 this season — nearly an entire game’s worth of ice time — those penalties are having an un-quantifiable effect on Washington’s scoring output, sapping energy from penalty-killing forwards that could be directed to even-strength contributions. Plus, when the Capitals’ penalty-killing unit is on the ice, Alex Ovechkin and his scoring potential are most often not.
“It’s not good. Guys are getting tired. That game two games ago when we took three or four in the first period, that really really hurts guys. They’re gassed for the rest of the game,” said Karl Alzner, who features on Washington’s penalty kill and therefore finds his minutes accumulating with the number of Capitals’ penalties. “If we’re killing them, we can put up with it, but when two or three of those end up in the back of the net, we’re going to be pretty upset about it.”
Alzner said the fatigue born of spending so much time on the penalty kill can often lead to more penalties, so it’s a vicious penalty cycle that takes discipline to stop.
“I’d say 90 percent of penalties are mental,” Alzner said. “I shouldn’t say it’s easy because guys mess up all the time, but you should be able to tell yourself, ‘I’m tired, I don’t need to stick my stick in here, I just need to work,’ But sometimes, it’s nice to take a little shortcut. Sometimes it works out for you, sometimes it doesn’t. I guess if you can hide it really well, then go for it, but I think it’s mainly mental.”
In some cases, as with Mikhail Grabovski’s inadvertent high stick that ultimately led to John Tavares’s goal in the first period against the Islanders Tuesday, the penalties are accidental and unavoidable. But for the most part, the amount of time the Capitals’ penalty-killing unit spends on the ice is something they can control, and will need to control moving forward.
“You want your special teams to be good,” Oates said. “You don’t necessarily want them to be number one, because maybe we’re getting too many penalties that we have to kill too many.”