EDMONTON, Alberta — When the "new NHL" came about and there was a league-wide commitment to calling tighter games, the idea was to open the game up for more offense.
On Thursday night in Edmonton, the Washington Capitals saw what can happen when officials call a tight game and discipline doesn't adjust. Some calls were right, some were wrong and some were borderline. But the result was a Caps team taken out of its rhythm by so much time on the kill that ultimately ended in their first loss of the season, 2-1 to the Oilers at Rexall Place.
"It feels like we gave the game away," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "It was just the penalties that killed us."
Anytime the referees need to be mentioned as a factor in a game, it's usually a bad thing — for at least one team. The Caps were unhappy with some of the calls, but it's what happened after the penalties were whistled that cost Washington dearly.
Forced to spend so much time killing penalties, Washington relied heavily on the likes of Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Playing those kinds of minutes is particularly taxing, and it showed.
Starting with a puck-over-the-glass penalty on Carlson at 16:37 of the first, seven straight minor penalties were called against the Caps.
"It was not good," Marcus Johansson said. "Playing four guys or three almost the whole period — a lot of guys played a lot and got tired, and some guys didn't play at all. It's tough."
The Oilers got a power-play goal on perfect tic-tac-toe passing from Corey Potter to Jordan Eberle to Taylor Hall late in the first, and then one on a rebound that Eberle cashed in on.
Meanwhile, the Caps couldn't do enough with the limited five-on-five time they were getting amid trips to the penalty box.
"I think the first 10 minutes, we had it in their zone the whole time, and our goal was to try to get a 2-0 lead and make them come out of their shell after the first," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But those four penalties at the end of the first period and then five in the second definitely took you out of the whole flow of the game. Give them credit, they played well."
At the second intermission, able to go into the dressing room down only one, the Caps regrouped. They dominated the first few minutes of the third, but an impressive side-to-side save by Nikolai Khabibulin and a couple shots off the post prevented them from tying the score.
"We had our chances to at least get a point; their goalie played great, and they had some luck, hit the post a few times in the third period," goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made 17 saves, said. "Sometimes that's just going to happen — they have a little bit more puck luck today than us."
While Karl Alzner and his teammates were upset at themselves for penalties, he emitted positive vibes about the Caps being the last NHL team to be unbeaten more so than negative ones for suffering their first loss.
"It's a good sign, I think. We got a really good team here," Alzner said. "We ran into a good team here that's on a high. We're really, really excited about the direction of this team right now."
But that didn't stop the temporary sting from this loss, which was a mix of Khabibulin's goaltending (34 saves), undisciplined play and a lack of favorable bounces.
"Bounces are part of the game. You get them or you don't get them," Boudreau said. "When you're doing the right things, you get the breaks. When you're maybe doing things you shouldn't be doing, you don't get the breaks."
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