Capitals Coach Barry Trotz’s message to the team after the first four games of the season: “Let’s be real. We’ve got to get our penalties down.”
The tipping point came on Wednesday night in Washington’s 3-2 loss to the Penguins, when the Capitals took six minor infractions in the first two periods, allowed three power-play goals and never could climb out of the hole they dug for themselves. It’s a small sample size, but Washington’s 20 minor penalties through four games are the third-most in the NHL.
More concerning is that this seems to be a continuing trend from last season, when the Capitals finished with 312 minors, the third-most in the league behind Calgary and Anaheim.
“That’s obviously something we’ve got to clean up,” forward Nicklas Backstrom said. “But I think it starts with execution in our own zone. If we’re executing plays, we won’t take these penalties, I think. We’re getting stuck in our own zone, and obviously, [the Penguins] got to play there and that’s what they’re good at. That’s when we take our penalties. We’ve just got to clean up that in our own zone, I think.”
Backstrom added that “there’s a new level of calls” that Washington has to adjust to with the NHL emphasizing stricter standards for slashing and faceoff violations. “I don’t know what the level is,” Backstrom said. There tends to be more penalties called earlier in the season, when certain rule changes or directives are fresher for referees.
“I think we all knew early on, based on the preseason, it was going to be a lot of penalties,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It’s going to be on us to be a little more disciplined. We’ve got to be a little better on the penalty killing at the same time.”
Entering Wednesday night’s game, Washington’s penalty kill had allowed just one goal in 14 times shorthanded, and it was Tampa Bay’s overtime winner in a four-on-three on Monday night. Against the Penguins, all three goals were scored directly in front of the net, something Trotz said the team needs to review before it plays in New Jersey on Friday night.
The penalty kill unit experienced some turnover after the offseason departures of forward Daniel Winnik and defenseman Karl Alzner, both of whom logged heavy shorthanded minutes. To replace Winnik, the Capitals paired Devante Smith-Pelly with Jay Beagle on the penalty kill, and in a first under Trotz, defenseman Dmitry Orlov has been consistently playing in shorthanded situations. Tom Wilson typically plays with linemate Lars Eller on the penalty kill, but with him suspended for the first four games of the season, Alex Chiasson has been paired with Eller when the Capitals have been down a man.
Smith-Pelly and Chiasson are new to Washington, still adjusting to a new system with a new coaching staff and teammates. Both are also new to taking on this much penalty kill responsibility. Smith-Pelly averaged 1:13 shorthanded time on ice per game last season, and Chiasson was on Calgary’s third penalty-killing forward pair, playing just 55 seconds on that unit per game. Chiasson has averaged 2:36 shorthanded through four games, while Smith-Pelly has had 4:24 shorthanded time on ice per game.
That second average is alarming because no Capitals forward averaged more than 2:45 per game on the penalty kill last season. It’s highly unlikely Washington will continue taking infractions at this pace, but it’s something the Capitals have their eye on correcting early in the season.
“Our five-on-five, we’re outscoring teams,” Trotz said. “So that’s a real good process for us. We’re getting good goaltending. But [Pittsburgh] got three power play goals. You’re sitting in the box too much.”
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