TORONTO — After a handful of penalties here and more than a few power-play goals by opponents there, it didn’t take long for the Washington Capitals to realize they had to stay out of the box to win games. When they did that Sunday, the first victory of the season followed.
When the Caps committed six minor penalties in Tuesday night’s loss at the Ottawa Senators, including one that paved the way for the game-winning goal, they weren’t as frustrated with that problem as much as they came to the realization that games are being called tight this season.
“It’s been called tighter than I’ve really ever been a part of, I think,” center Jay Beagle said. “Just with some of the penalties called, you know you can’t get away with anything right now.”
The Caps have been whistled for 33 minor penalties through six games, a major part of why they’re 1-4-1 going into Thursday night’s game at the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nine of the 22 goals they’ve allowed have come on the penalty kill.
But when right wing Joel Ward took a high-sticking penalty in the third period Tuesday with the score tied, Beagle said there wasn’t the fear of things going poorly.
“No one on the bench was like, ‘Oh no here we go again,’” he said. “We were like ‘Oh hey, let’s get this killed.’ We were doing good on the kill. We were confident going into that.”
Then ex-Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar scored on a goal that deflected in off Matt Hendricks’ shin pad and past Michal Neuvirth. It was the first power-play goal Washington had allowed since the second period of Friday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
Through Tuesday night’s games, officials called 868 minor penalties around the league, many of them part of stricter enforcement of interference and players closing a hand on the puck. Center Nicklas Backstrom took a penalty for closing his hand on the puck against the Senators that negated a Caps power play.
“You just got to be more careful, even on draws,” Beagle said. “I almost took a penalty swiping it with my hand just out of kind of what I’m used to. There’s these little things that you’ve got to really think about to make sure you don’t put your team short-handed.”
Coach Adam Oates, a center during his Hall of Fame playing career, knows it will take time for players to get used to that.
“I agree with the rule, for sure, about not putting your hand fully on top of it,” Oates said last week. “I’m not a big fan of the fact that, as a centerman, if a guy falls down and plays the puck, he’s on the ground. He’s out of position, so that never bothered me, but five-on-five in the zone when a guy lays down and grabs the puck, yeah, I don’t think that’s fair so they can push it. But just like everything, there’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment.”
Crabb’s Toronto homecoming
Thursday night, right wing Joey Crabb will play his first game back in Toronto since leaving the Maple Leafs to sign with the Capitals. He’s not a Toronto native like Ward, but he’s nevertheless excited about being back at Air Canada Centre
“It’s a fun city, it’s a fun city to play in and they got a lot of passion,” Crabb said. “I’m excited to go and play against the old buddies and hopefully get a win out of it.”
Randy Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson as coach midway through the 2011-12 season while Crabb was there. Since he came to Washington, the Maple Leafs have a new general manager in Dave Nonis after the firing of Brian Burke.
Toronto also has a handful of new players, including James van Riemsdyk, acquired in a draft-day trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. Crabb said the turnover didn’t really surprise him.
“I was surprised when Burke got fired, obviously,” Crabb said. “[The Maple Leafs] didn’t make the playoffs; [they are] the only team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the last lockout.”
• Forward Brooks Laich could skate with the Caps on Thursday in Toronto. He has not played this season as he tries to get back from a groin injury.
• The team had a full day off Wednesday. The new collective bargaining agreement requires two home and two road days off per month.