WHYNO: Capitals must stay out of penalty box to advance

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NEW YORK — Tangled up with Derek Dorsett, Mike Green went down in the corner of the ice. When Green got up, Dorsett was on his knees, and the Washington Capitals defenseman cross-checked him in full view of officials.


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Goaltender Braden Holtby accused the New York Rangers forward of a “dirty slew foot,” but it was Green who went to the penalty box for retaliating. Even as Holtby called the penalty discrepancy in Sunday’s 1-0 Game 6 loss “lopsided,” it’s clear that in committing 28 minors this series, a lack of discipline is killing the Caps.

“We took penalties. We deserved some, we didn’t deserve some,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “That’s how the series has kind of gone on. We’re not helping ourselves, either. We take untimely penalties.”

That’s a troublesome trend that cannot continue, or the Caps will find themselves out of the playoffs, whether it’s Monday after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series or soon after.

“Obviously you’ve got to stay out of the box in the playoffs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You can’t take as many as we did today.”

Against a team with a more functional power play, Washington would already be done. The Rangers are 2 for 26 with the man advantage (including 0 for 3 when up five-on-three) through six games.

That’s a testament to the Caps’ penalty kill and a concern for the Rangers, who are paying Rick Nash, Brad Richards and other star offensive players a lot of money to put the puck in the net.

Defenseman Karl Alzner called the penalty kill “the only reason why we’ve been able to stick around” the past few games.

“It’s holding us in this series,” Holtby said.

But seven penalties (counting roughing calls on Brouwer and John Carlson at game’s end) also showed the Caps are failing at something they’ve emphasized in recent weeks and that killed them early in the regular season.

Five before the final horn Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden didn’t directly contribute to the loss, as the Rangers couldn’t capitalize, but the flurry took Washington out of its flow and gave the restless crowd plenty to yell about. Captain Alex Ovechkin and center Mike Ribeiro can’t get on the ice, let alone produce, when the Caps are constantly killing penalties.

“It’s very difficult,” coach Adam Oates said. “The guys that we use to kill, the trickle-down minutes affect other guys. Some guys sit on the bench, don’t kill penalties. It makes it hard for them to get into their game.”

In Game 6, the Caps took penalties in the ways they’ve learned all too well they can’t. Defenseman Jack Hillen retaliated against Rangers captain Ryan Callahan in front of the benches and, predictably, went to the box.

Less than six minutes later, Alzner lifted the puck over the glass for a delay of game. “I hate that call just as much as anybody,” Alzner said recently. But, like it or not, it’s in the rule book.

When forward Eric Fehr elbowed Derick Brassard in the head, it had to be called. And even if the Caps took issue with Dorsett’s conduct, Green has to make sure he doesn’t retaliate.

“I’m not going to comment on what I thought [about Dorsett],” forward Matt Hendricks said, “but it’s a time in a point in the hockey game where we can’t afford to be in the box.”

When Ward cross-checked Dorsett earlier in the third, it was borderline. Brouwer expressed surprise at no calls on the Rangers before a heated scrum at the very end.

“That part is frustrating, but I thought our guys did a very good job of keeping their composure through it,” Holtby said. “We won’t use it as an excuse.”

The Caps’ league-leading power play cashed in three times in 14 chances through five games, including Green’s overtime winner in Game 2. In staying out of the box, the Rangers “kept our most dangerous weapon off the ice, our power play,” Alzner said.

Oates conceded before the series began that he was surprised to find out the Rangers were the NHL’s most disciplined team during the regular season. They have committed 19 penalties through six games, and most importantly zero before the buzzer Sunday as they staved off elimination.

“In the postseason, they’re letting us play a little bit too,” Dorsett said. “You’ve just got to make sure you don’t retaliate and just play hard and try to get under their skin.”

The Rangers clearly did that in Game 6. In Game 7, and then perhaps the next round, the Caps have to be prepared for officials to call things tightly. Fair or not, parading to the penalty box can give a team a reputation.

“We’re not that hockey team,” Hendricks said. “We’re not that type of team. We’re a disciplined hockey team. We need to stay disciplined.”

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