- The Washington Times
Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A few days ago, coach Peter Laviolette noted that the Capitals weren’t getting many power-play opportunities in the playoffs. The whistles to that point in the first-round series with the Florida Panthers had been few and far between.

Turns out that Laviolette may have spoken too soon.

Monday’s Game 4 loss for the Capitals featured a combined 13 penalties, resulting in five power plays for the Capitals and four for the Panthers. The others offset, resulting in stretches of 4-on-4 hockey. Remarkably, only one power-play goal was scored: Washington’s T.J. Oshie scored after John Carlson’s shot deflected off the winger’s leg. Through four games, the Panthers — one of the best power-play teams in the regular season — remain the only team in the playoffs who have yet to score on the power play.

Despite Washington’s success on the penalty kill, the Capitals likely have little margin for error. This postseason has seen an uptick in penalties, creating more chances for games to be swung on special teams. The Capitals suffered a 3-2 overtime defeat Monday, but the result may have been different, for instance, if Washington was able to score on a 5-on-3 power play in the second period. And while Florida didn’t score on a power play, center Carter Verhaeghe knocked one in to tie the game after a change of possession on 4-on-4 resulted in a 2-on-1 for the Panthers

Every opportunity matters. 

“It’s a physical series,” Laviolette said. “It’s four games deep now and going deeper. And so you get two teams playing hard against each other, there’s a lot of emotion on the ice. We’ve got to try to be more disciplined and not have to rely on the penalty kill.

“You don’t want to give their power play too many looks,” Laviolette said later.

Based on data available on the NHL’s website, teams have averaged 4.11 power-play opportunities per game these playoffs through the first 32 games entering Tuesday’s action. That’s a sizable increase from last year’s postseason when teams averaged 2.74 power plays per game. 

The uptick runs contrary to the belief that come playoff time, referees tend to swallow their whistle. The thinking goes that because players tend to be more physical in the playoffs, referees will generally accept big hits and other possible infractions that they wouldn’t let slide in the regular season. But according to ESPN, there have been more power-play opportunities per game in eight of the last 10 postseasons than in the regular season. 

That’s also proven to be the case this year. In the regular season, teams averaged 2.89 power-play opportunities per game In terms of just penalties, teams drew an average of 3.7 per game. That figure is now close to 5.9 through the first round so far. 

The increase may be the result of a smaller sample size — penalties could theoretically go down as the playoffs go along — but anecdotally, others have noticed a difference. 

“It wasn’t called the same way as the regular season, very clearly,” Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter said last week. 

“There’s been more penalties than I expected in the beginning of the playoffs,” Oilers forward Derek Ryan told reporters.

All the penalties can result in a stop-and-start affair — leaving it hard for a team to establish a rhythm. Laviolette, though, said that can’t be an excuse for the Capitals. He pointed out how Florida was able to execute on the offensive end despite their high number of penalties. The Panthers held a 32-16 advantage on shots on goal, despite taking seven penalties to Washington’s six. 

Through four games, there have been 43 penalties called in Washington’s series against Florida. The calls have slightly favored Washington, which has drawn 23 penalties to Florida’s 20.

“We’ve got a veteran group that understands how to handle those situations,” Capitals defenseman Justin Schultz said. “Every game is different and we have to be ready every shift.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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