Capitals Are Concerned By an Excess of Penalties

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau sought out winger Alexander Semin between the second and third periods Saturday and admonished him within earshot of his teammates. Semin had been whistled for a hooking infraction in the second period, and the Detroit Red Wings' top-ranked power play scored on the ensuing advantage.

Boudreau had seen enough. So he called out Semin -- a repeat offender -- and, in a less direct manner, sent a message to his teammates.

"We've been harping on it and harping on it and harping on it, about taking fewer penalties," Boudreau said. "It's something we have to cut down, obviously."

The Capitals have won two straight and stretched their lead over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division to 13 points despite being one of the NHL's most penalized teams. But as games tighten up down the stretch and Boudreau and his players prepare for what they hope to be a long run in the playoffs, one of their primary concerns will be cutting down on the amount of time spent in the penalty box. It's also not lost on Boudreau and his players that last season's playoff run ended on a tripping penalty in overtime of Game 7 in their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We're taking lazy penalties, holding and hooking and stuff like that," said defenseman Milan Jurcina, who has taken the second-most minor penalties on the Capitals. "Coach has been saying that we can't take the lazy penalties. We have to keep our sticks down and keep skating."

Through 51 games, the Capitals have been assessed 256 minor penalties, the sixth most in the league. And of the 245 times they've been short-handed, they've allowed 52 goals, the second most. Only Atlanta, the league's second-worst team, has allowed more, with 53.

While the team's struggling penalty kill has not bailed them out often enough -- the unit has yielded at least one power-play goal in each of the past 11 games -- the problem has as much to do with the sheer volume of penalties the Capitals are taking.

In the past 10 games, they've taken less than five penalties just once and have been assessed seven penalties three times. Boudreau considers three penalties per game to be the optimal number.

"When you have two, three penalties a game, you kill them off," said Boudreau, whose Capitals face the New Jersey Devils, winners of eight games in a row, tonight at Prudential Center. "When you have five, six, seven, it's tough."

Taking penalties also leads to disjointed game flow, disrupts line changes and often results in taking ice time away from the Capitals' most skilled players.

"We're a four-line team, and when you get that many penalties, it really screws up the chemistry of the lines," Boudreau said.

The reason for the flood of penalties, though, is harder to pinpoint than their negative effects. In recent seasons, the Capitals blamed their penalty problems on a lack of skill exacerbated by a lack of experience. Now, it's the result of skilled players taking shortcuts, veteran Sergei Fedorov said.

"We have to use our legs more than our sticks," he said. "We have to be patient when the opposition has the puck. These are the little details that are big."

Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's leading goal scorer, has taken a team-high 28 minor penalties and is followed by Jurcina (22), Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn (17 apiece), Donald Brashear (16) and Semin, who has 15 in 33 games played.

Semin's penchant for taking penalties has been particularly frustrating for the coaching staff and his teammates. The 24-year-old winger ranks second on the Capitals in goals and third in points (43) despite missing 18 games because of back and ribcage injuries. But he also has taken seven minor penalties in the past eight games, including one in each of the past five. Last season, he led all Capitals' forwards in minor penalties with 27 in 63 games.

Semin's tripping foul in the Capitals' 7-4 win over Ottawa on Sunday did not result in a power-play goal against Washington. But he was seated in the penalty box for hooking 24 hours before that when Detroit's Johan Franzen scored the game-tying goal in the second period of a contest the Capitals eventually won, 4-2.

Boudreau opted not to bench Semin for the third period of the Detroit game because at the time the score was tied, and Semin possesses game-breaking talent. But Boudreau did drop him to the third line for the Ottawa game, reducing his ice time by almost four minutes.

Several of Semin's teammates said they have pulled aside the winger, whose emotions often get the best of him, and talked to him about how his penalties -- especially those taken in the offensive zone -- are hurting the team.

"We've all said things to him," Viktor Kozlov said. "But he is so hungry on the ice, trying to get the puck as quick as possible and he tried to cheat to get the puck back and maybe that's what happens. On the ice, it's hard to think."

Boudreau said he will continue to implore all of his players to take fewer penalties, but he likely won't hound Semin specifically. It's not his style, he said, and it often proves to be counterproductive.

"His good does outweigh the bad," Boudreau said. "He's a [team-leading] plus 23, and gets a point and half a game. But are you cutting your nose to spite your face by making a real big to-do about it?"

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