NEW YORK – The Washington Capitals spent so much time shorthanded in the first two periods Monday night against the New York Rangers that Eric Fehr could barely recall taking an even-strength shift with his linemates.
“Just felt like the first two periods all we were doing was killing,” Fehr said. “We have a really good team that enjoys playing all four lines. We have the ability to take over games as a unit, and we weren’t able to roll over the lines, so it’s tough.”
Fehr’s concern spoke to the greater problems that arise when penalties pile up for Washington as they did in the 4-3 loss to the Rangers, when the visitors spent 10 minutes and 8 seconds of the first 28:32 on the penalty kill.
Heading into Game 4 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, the Capitals want to make sure they’re not handcuffing their greatest asset: forward depth that allows them to dominate games at even strength. Coach Adam Oates might not have agreed with all of the calls his team received in Game 3, but knows that frequent trips to the penalty box damage Washington’s game plan and make it difficult to get Alex Ovechkin and others ice time.
“It’s hard, and the minutes get spread out, and that’s not really our type of game,” Oates said. “We don’t want to trade power plays.”
The Rangers went 0 for 7 on the man advantage through Games 1 and 2, suddenly found themselves with six power-play opportunities to spark their offense before the end of the second period in Game 3.
Even for Washington’s penalty kill, which is an impressive 34 for 37 dating back to April 13, that’s a difficult stress test. New York only recorded one power-play goal in Game 3, technically, but another tally came immediately after a Rangers power play had expired.
“Our PK has been great for us as of late, but if you take that many penalties, they’re bound to get good looks, they’re bound to score, so we’ve got to continue to try and work hard without using our sticks,” Troy Brouwer said. “A lot of our penalties were unnecessary penalties away from our goal, which gives them an opportunity to try and score. We’ve got to clean up that aspect of our game, continue to work hard, continue to finish our checks, but do it without taking penalties.”
But the pressure on the penalty killers is only one part of the equation.
Through the first three games in this best-of-seven series, Washington has dictated the pace and out-shot the Rangers, 80-66, during even-strength action. The Capitals couldn’t find that rhythm in Game 3 until late in the second period, though.
“We can’t take as many penalties. We’ve got to try and stay out of the box,” Jay Beagle said after the game Monday. “That makes it way easier on ourselves and just stick to our system, stick to our game plan, and if we stay out of the game plan and keep rolling five-on-five, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Two of Washington’s top offensive threats — Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro — do not play on the penalty kill. A glut of shorthanded play means that Ovechkin, Ribeiro and anyone else not actively involved in penalty-killing efforts are sitting on the bench, unable to contribute.
“For someone who doesn’t PK in a situation like last night, you’re gonna get a little out of rhythm, you’re gonna get a little cold on the bench because you don’t play for a 10-minute span and it’s tough to jump right back into the game,” Brouwer said.
In Game 3, Ovechkin, Ribeiro, Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera didn’t see any shorthanded time but then saw their responsibility increase in the third period as the Capitals tried to regain the lead from New York.
Oates is particularly in tune with Ovechkin’s need for ice time to get himself going in a game, but Monday there was little the coach could do. He double-shifted the winger with the fourth line with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the second period to help Ovechkin find his legs once the penalties had subsided.
“After that we were okay, but until then it was hard because every time, I was thinking about it we got another penalty. It was tough,” Oates said. “It’s very difficult. We just can’t take too many penalties.”