COLUMBUS, OHIO — After another game in which the Washington Capitals’ penalty summary was longer than their opponent’s, players quietly packed their equipment bags and explained how another night with too many whistles going against them hurt the team in a 3-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Capitals didn’t allow a power-play goal, but the damage was done in other ways, disrupting their flow early in a game in which they never established one.
“Same old story with the penalties,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Especially on a back-to-back night, it just wears you down and takes a lot of energy out of you.”
The Capitals’ legs were already tired after they played Monday night in Washington, and two stick infractions in the first period Tuesday had them on their heels early, keeping skill players cold on the bench while those who play on the penalty kill were taxed. Washington was called for a hat trick of hooking minors in the first period against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday, and while the team went on to win that game, 6-4, the issue persisted in Columbus. The Capitals took five minor penalties to the Blue Jackets’ two, the continuation of an unfortunate trend that left the team tied for the league lead in minors with 206 through Tuesday’s games.
Coach Todd Reirden sent a message earlier this month when he benched forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitrij Jaskin for the remainder of the first period after they each committed early stick penalties outside of the defensive zone against the Boston Bruins. Asked what it’s going to take for the team to learn its lesson, Orpik said, “I don’t know.”
“It felt like we weren’t really five-on-five that much,” forward Tom Wilson said after Tuesday’s loss. “First period, second period, we’re killing an awful lot. . . . You know, it’s going to happen. It’s the game of hockey. It’s fast, and guys are trying hard. It’s not that there’s no effort, but it’s hard to score shorthanded, and in a game like tonight, it just kind of takes the flow away. Guys that aren’t killing are sitting on the bench, and then they go out with someone else’s line and they’re not used to playing together. It just kind of messes it up. We’ve got to find a way to move our feet and play disciplined, and that’ll help our team game a lot, I think.”
Washington’s issues against Columbus went far beyond penalties — “We just got outplayed the whole night,” Orpik said — but each call that puts the Capitals shorthanded adds to frustration that the issue has so frequently been addressed and not yet solved. The Blue Jackets had three full power plays with a fourth one that was abbreviated. And while, as goaltender Braden Holtby pointed out, that’s not an abnormal number, it’s the 10th time in the past 20 games that Washington has been shorthanded more than it has been up a man. In that span, the Capitals have had more power plays than their opponent five times.
The silver lining is that the penalty kill, which struggled mightily to start the season, has improved, allowing just three power-play goals in the past eight games. But perhaps more concerning than the Capitals repeatedly taking penalties is why it’s happening, seemingly the result of Washington getting hemmed into its own zone too often.
“We were a step behind, and what happens when you’re a step behind is you end up using your stick,” Reirden said. “We were on the wrong side of some battles, and we used our stick to defend. And those are penalties. That’s an important part of game management in a back-to-back and a situation where the other team is fresh, and that’s difficult to overcome when you have to exert all of your energy trying to kill off penalties.”