At 2-8-1 the Washington Capitals are off to one of the five worst starts in franchise history. Getting a handle on what has caused this underachievement isn’t easy, but general manager George McPhee has his theory.
“The issue with our club right now, in my mind, is all these penalties that we’re taking. It’s too much,” McPhee said Friday as part of a state of the Caps address. “We’re playing a good game and then we start taking penalties and we take them in bunches. No system, no coach, no team can survive that.”
The penalties aren’t the only problem for the Caps, in McPhee’s opinion or in those of others around the team. He also pointed to the subpar goaltending of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, who haven’t been able to come up with timely saves often enough.
“Neuvirth is a good solid goaltender. Holtby played really well in the playoffs. It’s time for these two guys to play,” McPhee said. “Give them lots of games and see how they do. And right now it’s not going the way they had hoped.”
But in McPhee’s eyes the problem is the lack of discipline, more so than an offensive deficiency or a delay in players picking up rookie coach Adam Oates’ systems.
“I just think it’s undisciplined, lack of focus, selfish in some ways and in a short season, in any season, playoffs or whatever, you can’t be taking penalties,” he said. “We’re taking too many. It’s too hard on the goaltenders and it’s too hard on the team.”
The Caps are in the middle of the pack in penalty minutes a game with 13.6, though they have 55 minor penalties and a league-worst 15 power-play goals against.
McPhee pointed to specific penalties of late, like two by defenseman Karl Alzner in Thursday night’s 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and those of right wings Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. Captain Alex Ovechkin leads the team with six minors, while forward Matt Hendricks has the most penalty minutes at 36.
“I can’t be angry at any individual,” McPhee said. “It just seems to be happening and it’s incredibly frustrating but it’s got to stop.”
The penalties could be indicative of a larger problem. Ribeiro and others have said the Caps lack “focus,” which can lead to mental lapses and penalties.
“A lot of penalties are as a result of work ethic,” Brouwer said. “You get yourself in a tough position when you have to hook or hold somebody and I think that’s probably the direct root of our problems right now. We’re working hard, but we’ve got to work smart, and as a result, we tend to take penalties and we’re getting killed on them as a result.”
Sometimes, like on Alzner’s interference that paved the way for Evgeni Malkin’s power-play goal Thursday, a penalty is necessary to negate a quality scoring chance. When defenseman Mike Green interfered with Patrik Elias in overtime against the New Jersey Devils, he just about saved a goal.
But the Caps have also been guilty of six delay of game penalties for lofting the puck over the glass and many others that don’t serve a purpose.
“If anything, it’s the wrong type of penalties,” Oates said. “It’s being in control of your stick. I don’t know if it’s focus, fatigue. You have to control it, you have to know what you’re doing. Hooking penalties are tough, penalties in the offensive zone are tough. Pucks in the stands are tough. Those are kind of mental mistakes, almost, most of them. Not all, but most of them. And they kind of hurt the team.”
It also hurts to have a penalty kill seemingly unable to make a stop when it’s absolutely needed. Some of that is on the goalies; Neuvirth has done better with an .880 short-handed save percentage than Holtby has (.743).
But players aren’t eager to throw the goalies under the bus.
“Our penalty kill hasn’t been where it needs to be,” Hendricks said. “We’re allowing teams to score, one, two three goals a game on us it’s hard to win hockey games like that.”
Playing short-handed so often can not only destroy the flow of a game but waste penalty killers’ energy. At 70.6 percent, Washington’s penalty kill is ranked 27th in the league.
“The PK can be better if you allow it to be. Any time you take three [penalties] or less, in most cases you can kill those. … When you start taking more than three penalties a game, it ruins the game.,” McPhee said. “You wipe the players out. Penalty killing is really tiring.”
The solution? It sounds so simple.
“Stop doing it,” McPhee said. “Stop taking the penalties.”
It’s easier said than done, especially when the frustration has snowballed to this point. Once a player loses a step, a mistake happens.
Players talked about a lack of mental toughness and collapses coming too easily.
“If they say they’re fragile, yeah they are. And it always seems to start with the penalties,” McPhee said. “We’ve played so well in so many games and we take some penalties at inopportune times and clusters of them that you’re just putting yourself in jail. That part of it I would agree with, that they have to stay out of the box and stay stronger and give themselves a chance. This league’s too good. You can’t take the most penalties in the league and expect to be doing well.”