Capitals cut down on costly penalties

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010

TAMPA -- For two seasons, Coach Bruce Boudreau has tried different ways to get the Washington Capitals to take fewer minor penalties.

He has called out players in postgame news conferences. He has chided them within earshot of their teammates between periods. He has droned on (and on) about the topic in team meetings.

If the past two months are any indication of a long-term trend, Boudreau's message finally seems to be resonating in the locker room. Only five teams have been whistled for fewer minor infractions than the Capitals' 171 in 44 games. They've also seen their penalties per game decrease each month this season.

By comparison, only five teams took more minors than Washington's 414 last season.

"I think I snapped once too often," Boudreau said, smiling. "I've harped on it for the last two years. It's finally getting through."

Since a sloppy overtime loss to Columbus on Nov. 1 that ended with Brian Pothier seated in the penalty box for interference, the Capitals have been more disciplined.

They were assessed six obstruction minors during that 5-4 loss to the Blue Jackets. In 30 games since, they have been whistled for four or fewer minors 25 times, including just three obstruction infractions in each of the past three contests -- dominant wins over Montreal, Ottawa and Atlanta.

Boudreau considers three or four minors per game to be manageable.

"When we're not killing seven penalties a game, the ice time gets spread around a lot more and we don't have guys sitting on the bench all night long," Boudreau said. "It's preaching and maturity and understanding that this league is about special teams a lot of the time. The less time we spend in the penalty box, the more time we spend trying to score goals. We're hoping it's a trend and it will stick."

Boudreau and his players said there are three primary reasons for the decline in penalties: The younger Capitals better understand what referees will (and won't) let them get away with; Boudreau's constant reminders to his players about keeping their legs moving as opposed to reaching with their sticks while defending opposing players; and the fear of being in the penalty box when the winning goal is scored.

Last season's biggest offenders -- Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn -- are all spending less time in the penalty box this season. But it's Morrisonn who has made the greatest strides. The 27-year-old defenseman was assessed 30 minor penalties in 72 games last season; this season he has been whistled for seven minor penalties in 34 contests.

"We've had meetings and gone over it, and that's made a difference," Morrisonn said. "We don't mind the aggressive penalties, like roughing. We just want to limit the stick penalties. . . . Especially in the offensive zone; there's no reason to take a penalty there. It's been ingrained in our minds."

Added center Brooks Laich, "It's usually a lazy penalty, and when you watch it on film, you are disgusted with yourself for taking it because you know the coach is right for yelling at you.

"You don't want to be the guy who ends up costing your team a hockey game or two points," Laich added. "When you're sitting in the penalty box, the world is on your shoulders if it's a 2-2 hockey game. If they score, it ruins your day."

Cutting down on penalties also has aided the Capitals' penalty kill, which is under less pressure because the unit is facing fewer short-handed situations. In fact, since yielding two power-play goals in a 6-3 loss in Toronto on Dec. 12, the penalty kill hasn't permitted more than one in a game, and has extinguished 33 of 38 short-handed situations in 11 games for an 86.8 percent success rate.

"The big thing for the [penalty kill] is if we take one penalty a period, or spaced-out penalties, it's a bit easier to kill, whereas we seem to get in trouble when we take three in a row or three in a period," said Tom Poti, the Capitals' leader in short-handed ice time per game. "The guys are just tired. You take three penalties in a period, and you're down a man for six minutes, something bad is going to happen. Bad bounces just happen."

The Capitals' challenge is to remain disciplined down the stretch as the games tighten up and the team pursues first place in the Eastern Conference, and then have it carry over into the playoffs.

"We're growing up and getting more experience so we're not doing something that's going to be bad," Ovechkin said. "We've talked about it. We just realize, why take a penalty when you don't need it?"

© 2010 The Washington Post Company