After Thursday's practice, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau met with an unidentified player about penalties in the offensive zone. The message was clear to him and the entire team.
"It's about moving your legs and not getting lazy," the coach said.
Watching video and going through drills, the Capitals know they haven't played as well during the past six games as they did during their 7-0-0 start.
Many of the problems, Boudreau said, are correctable — and that includes committing penalties at a higher frequency and at inopportune times.
"If you're not killing penalties, then you can't be taking penalties. Why are you testing fate? That'll probably be the biggest thing: Just staying out of the box more, you give a team a chance to win the game," right wing Mike Knuble said Tuesday, after Washington's fourth loss in six games. "It's kind of been the recipe for failure probably since Edmonton is untimely penalties."
Starting Oct. 27 in Edmonton, the Capitals have taken 29 minor penalties in six games.
In total, Washington is short-handed just an average of 1:04 more per game than when it won seven straight, but it's how the penalties are happening that is taking a toll. Many have been during tied or one-goal situations.
"It is frustrating any time you take penalties. Some of them haven't been very good, but I think that's because we've been getting outworked," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "And that's what happens when you get outworked is you have to take an extra holding or hooking penalty, or you get forced to sometimes shoot the puck out of play. I've done it tons of times in my career. It all comes down to just working harder than the other team."
Coaches generally aren't upset with a roughing call, or one that prevents a quality scoring chance. Over half the minor penalties during this stretch have been stick infractions (hooking, high-sticking, tripping or slashing), and a couple were holding penalties.
That kind of thing doesn't bode well for winning.
"Not even good penalties," Knuble said. "Very rarely have we taken a good penalty at a moment where a guy had to do something to save a goal. It's just little trips and hooks and high-sticks. Guys are sitting on the bench [thinking], 'Here we go again.' "
It's something, Boudreau noted, that even veteran teams need to be reminded of: Staying out of the box is paramount. But it's even a bigger deal with this team because of what it can do at even strength.
"When you don't take penalties, you get to roll four lines. We've got four lines that are fairly good. When you take penalties, it disrupts everything," Boudreau said. "Whether you take eight minors like it was in Edmonton, which sort of started this whole thing, or five penalties or six penalties in Vancouver [on Oct. 29] or the amount of penalties you take in any of the games that we've lost, it disrupts the flow of the game for us."
That emphasis, which involves video and more on off days, will continue during this weekend's home-and-home series with the New Jersey Devils, Friday on the road and Saturday at Verizon Center.
But no matter how much the Caps talk about fixing the problem, the solution comes down to the little things that lead to losses.
"We know we don't want to take penalties — when we're not moving our feet we're taking tripping penalties and hooking penalties," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "When you're not working hard, you're taking those penalties."
And Washington would much rather do the hard work five-on-five than killing penalties. That has been a recipe for early success.
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