As the seconds ticked down on another Pittsburgh Penguins power play opportunity Sunday, Washington Capitals defenseman Zdeno Chara threw his body in front of Jared McCann’s one-timer. The puck ricocheted off Chara’s leg away from net, and Chara — all 6-foot-9 of him — crumpled over and careened into the wall.
But Chara then popped back up, even with a grimace on his face, and skated back toward the crease to continue defending.
“Guys are definitely paying the price,” defenseman Nick Jensen said. “Guys are blocking shots, and trust me, it hurts. But it’s all worth it.”
Three games into Washington’s season, the penalty kill has been a bright spot, killing off 12 of the 13 power play opportunities they’ve faced. They’re continuing last year’s precedent, throwing bodies in front of shots and limiting clear chances.
But with a slew of penalties, that unit has been on the ice far too long through three games. And while those penalties haven’t resulted in many goals, the 31 penalty-kill minutes played so far this season reduce the chances for the Capitals to build possession in the offensive zone and score goals themselves.
“These penalties have got to go,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We can’t have these penalties.”
To coach Peter Laviolette, there’s a clear distinction between different types of penalties. He wants his team to play aggressively, and roughness calls can sometimes be an unintended side effect of that physicality.
But the penalties he’s noticed so far this season — resulting in five power play chances for opponents each of the last two games — haven’t been born out of aggressive play. Instead, there have been three tripping transgressions, three holding calls, two slashing infringements and a hooking violation.
“We took penalties because we weren’t very sharp with our game,” Laviolette said Friday after a 2-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres. “We weren’t working very hard. I thought they had the jump and the work, and we can address that, but usually when you are not dictating you are looking to defend and that leads to holds and trips.”
With a new coach and a shortened training camp, Washington knew there would be a learning curve early in the season. The Capitals have still secured five of the possible six points, though, with wins against Buffalo before an overtime shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The players have shown an understanding of Laviolette’s system, and winger Garnet Hathaway said the timing for lines is developing. But there’s still work to be done. With penalties proving an early issue, that limits the time Washington has to run its usual line changes in even-man situations.
And while the penalties haven’t led to goals, the time spent killing them off takes away from the Capitals’ attack. For instance, in the second period of Sunday’s loss, Laviolette’s squad were called for three penalties.
“Once we limit some of those penalties, we can roll four lines and play a little bit more 5-on-5 and find our identity,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “Now, it’s been a lot of whistles throughout the first games, a lot of PK and certain lines don’t get in. And especially early in the year, we’ve got to find chemistry and we gotta learn the system, and the easiest way to do that is play a lot of 5-on-5.”
Barring one letdown in the season-opening win against the Sabres, the penalty kill unit has been strong. Much of that stems from last season, the continuation of a penalty-kill system led by assistant coach Scott Arniel.
“That’s why we didn’t come in and blow up everything,” Laviolette said. “There was enough information coming to maybe change some of the things, but there was no sense in changing things that were working.”
Signing Chara this offseason provides that unit another imposing option, too, and he and the rest of the penalty kill lines have displayed the commitment needed — putting their bodies on the line to deflect shots.
It’s worked so far. But relying too heavily on that penalty kill unit isn’t a recipe for long term success, bringing Washington back to the root issue: the penalties.
“We’re a team that needs to play physical and needs to play with a lot of intensity,” Hagelin said. “But a lot of our penalties so far have been hookings and trippings and slashings; that has nothing to do with being aggressive. So we got to limit that.”
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