As much as Tom Wilson disliked the feeling of skating into the penalty box, he felt even worse each time he left it. Wilson has been called for two minor penalties in the first two games of the Washington Capitals’ first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both times, he was in the box when the Blue Jackets scored a power-play goal to tie the score after the Capitals once held a two-goal lead. With Washington in a 2-0 series hole entering Tuesday night’s Game 3, it’s hard not to point to those moments as a major factor.
Wilson’s lack of discipline highlights a team-wide issue for the Capitals. Columbus actually has been shorthanded more often than Washington, yielding five power-play goals through two games, but it has been the timing of the penalties, particularly when the team is protecting a lead, that has most hurt the Capitals. The Blue Jackets have scored four power-play goals on their eight opportunities.
“We haven’t taken as many, but at the same time, the timing of our penalties have been very unnecessary and untimely and put us in a position to give them momentum back,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
“I mean, I’m not stupid, he’s not stupid, you guys aren’t stupid,” Wilson said. “First of all, I’m on the penalty kill, so if I’m in the box, I can’t penalty kill. Second of all, it’s huge when you give that team an opportunity to be a man up in a playoff game. … I’ve got to be a lot smarter. I’ve got to walk that line, play aggressive and be effective for this team, and it can’t be from the box.”
Wilson was a playoff hero for the Capitals in the first round last season, when he scored three goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That set the stage for him to take an elevated role this year, playing mostly on the top line with captain Alex Ovechkin. The trio with center Evgeny Kuznetsov has been held goalless at even strength this series, and Wilson said the line has been relying on too many chances from the perimeter. The Capitals don’t have a five-on-five goal from their top-six forward corps in the first two games.
Wilson still hasn’t tallied a shot on goal through the first two games. While he flashed more skill this year with a career-high 14 goals, he has also continued to be penalty-prone, finishing with a career-high 187 penalty minutes. Included in that total are 13 fighting majors, which wouldn’t cause the team to be shorthanded, but balancing the physicality that makes Wilson effective with not putting his teammates in a tough situation is an ongoing battle for Wilson.
In Game 1, he was penalized for charging Alexander Wennberg in the corner, a hit that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety reviewed closely. Then in Game 2, he went to the box for roughing after a post-whistle scrum. In both situations, Washington surrendered the lead on the ensuing Blue Jackets power play.
“I guess I’ve just got to stay completely out of it,” Wilson said of the skirmish that lead to his Game 2 penalty. “I’ve seen that play happen numerous times throughout the playoffs so far, and I get penalized for it. I guess I just stay out of it completely and not give them an opportunity to put me in the box. It potentially can cost your team the game when you’re taking a penalty. It’s an important part of the playoffs, so you’ve got to stay out of the box, and I’ve got to be better for sure.”
The postseason is usually a time when referees swallow their whistles, but penalties across the playoffs are up more than 17 percent over the same time a year ago, according to the Associated Press. Now that the Capitals have gotten a better feel for what’s being called and how hurtful it can be to them, Trotz is hopeful the team has learned its lesson.
“It’s so hard to sometimes get momentum and then get it back,” Trotz said. “You’ve just got to understand the moment, and your actions have results. A couple of the penalties that we’ve taken the last couple games have ended up in the back of our net.”
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