New York Islanders winger Matt Martin drilled Dmitry Orlov into the boards in the second period Tuesday night at Verizon Center to put the home team on a power play, but the Washington Capitals couldn’t stay out of the penalty box themselves to actually use the advantage.
Thirty-one seconds into the power play, Troy Brouwer was whistled for interfering with Brock Nelson, negating Washington’s position. Brouwer’s minor marked one of five times the Capitals were shorthanded in their 1-0 loss, and regardless of whether it was a questionable call, they simply can’t afford to be stuck killing off that many penalties on a consistent basis. Not that knowledge of that has stopped them.
The Capitals have just three wins in their past 10 games. It’s no coincidence that in each of the seven losses, they’ve been shorthanded four or more times. In the three victories, they faced three or fewer penalty kills.
Over the course of the season, Washington is 9-16-4 when shorthanded four or more times in a game and 16-7-5 when it’s three or less.
“We’ve just got to stay out of the penalty box. We’ve been doing this to ourselves for the last two weeks, just takes the momentum right out of the game,” Eric Fehr said. “I thought we outplayed [New York] in the first, and then we find ourselves in the box the rest of the game and you can’t get anything going.”
The Capitals’ fondness for the penalty box lately is damaging in a variety of ways, not only that it offers opponents a prime chance to swing momentum with a power-play goal. Washington’s penalty kill, which ranks 18th overall this year at 81 percent, actually has thwarted 36 of the 43 infractions its faced over these last 10 games.
But in games where they spend anywhere from 7:24 to more than 11 minutes shorthanded, the Capitals are adding significant ice time and intense workloads to key players.
Every extra penalty top defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner, along with forwards such as Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, have to expend more energy fighting off puts them at risk for fatigue and the mistakes that come with it later in the game. Conversely, that time leads to top line forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom growing cold on the bench seeing as neither is used frequently while shorthanded.
Given the nature of the compacted schedule — Washington will have played 15 games in the 28 days prior to the NHL’s upcoming Olympic break — the abundance of grinding penalty kill time isn’t doing them any favors. Especially when few of the penalties are those that would be deemed necessary, or good, plays to take down an opponent on a breakaway or other type of scoring chance.
“We’ve got to do a better job of fighting through some things,” Alzner said. “It’s frustrating for you whenever you take a penalty and maybe you disagree with it, or when you take a penalty out of frustration, or being tired and lazy. We’ve had a mixture of both, and we have to realize that’s something that’s hurting us a lot and each individual needs to do a better job of keeping their cool and playing better.”
There have also been a handful of times in this 10-game span that the Capitals have taken penalties while on the power play, or when they were about to receive one, themselves.
Without counting Carlson hooking the Islanders’ speedy Michael Grabner and giving him a shorthanded penalty shot in Tuesday’s loss, it’s happened on six occasions. Brouwer’s minor and another interference call on Joel Ward interrupted the man advantage against New York. It occurred twice in each of the Capitals’ lopsided losses at Columbus as well, including when Tom Wilson took an unnecessary retaliatory roughing minor on Jan. 17 to negate a would-be power play and set them off track for the rest of the contest.
“Dumb ones are tough to take from responsible guys. They know better,” Coach Adam Oates said after the loss to the Islanders. “Mistakes — they hurt you. They really do.”
There will always be some calls the Capitals disagree with but as a propensity for penalties continues to plague them, players are the only ones who can make the adjustments required to clean up the team’s game. The formula is a simple one: If Washington takes fewer penalties it has a better chance of succeeding.
“We’ve just got to find a way to move our feet,” Fehr said. “We know what tripping is, we know what hooking is. We’ve got to keep our sticks down and just play hockey. We’re not moving our feet as much as we want to and we’re getting caught.”
Capitals note : The club reassigned defenseman Tyson Strachan to Hershey.