Very early in the 2013 NHL season, the Washington Capitals took delay of game penalties for putting the puck over the glass like it was their job. Of course it wasn't on purpose, but it killed them at a time opposing power plays were scoring at will.
“I think they lowered the glass,” defenseman John Carlson quipped with a knowing smile.
More than two months later, it's hard to believe Rule 63.2 would make the difference in a playoff game, actually in the Caps' favor. Though as they showed in Saturday's Game 2 overtime victory against the Rangers, they're well-positioned to take advantage of one of the few times officials can't swallow their whistles.
Armed with a dangerous power play that opponents fear and better conditioned than at the start of the season, the Caps have come a long way from the team that took five puck-over-the-glass penalties in the first eight games of the regular season. When Ryan McDonagh fired the puck into the crowd 7:09 into overtime, fans at Verizon Center rose to their feet understanding what the league's best power play could do.
“We knew the team have to [be] afraid to take a penalties because we're gonna try to use it,” captain Alex Ovechkin said.
Generally in the playoffs, fewer penalties are called. No one wants a judgment call to decide a game this time of year, but it's one of the rare instances where it's clear cut: Put the puck over the glass and you go to the box.
“It's a rule,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said minutes after defenseman Mike Green gave the Caps a two games to none lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
It's a rule that could have cost the Caps earlier in overtime when defenseman Steve Oleksy skated almost the blue line and missed the glass with his clearing attempt. Sitting in the penalty box was “a helpless feeling,” Oleksy said.
But the Caps killed off 27 of the previous 29 penalties, making their stat of being ranked 27th in the NHL much more an indictment of a horrendous start.
“I think the first, I don't know, 10 games of the season we were just so bad we were getting four goals scored against us in a game,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It's so hard to climb out of a hole like that, so it's always going to look bad.”
Led by Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom blocking shots, the penalty kill looked good in keeping Oleksy from ending the afternoon as the goat. The Rangers didn't even get a shot, and Oleksy could only call it a “funny game” when McDonagh got whistled for the same penalty soon after.
“All you can do it sit back and smile when something like that happens,” Oleksy said.
Alzner was smiling earlier when the puck deflected off his stick and into the crowd. He knew it wasn't a penalty right away even as officials reviewed it because he considered the implications of a similar play Friday night.
“It was weird,” Alzner said. “I was thinking about a play, if a guy passed it from side to side and I stuck my stick out and tipped it out of the zone, would they call a penalty on me? You never know. And then I started thinking, and this play actually game up. It was kind of a weird coincidence.”
Because Alzner didn't shoot the puck out of the zone, he escaped unscathed. There were 45.3 seconds remaining in the third period of a tie game, and it could have proven costly.
“I actually thought it was a penalty,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I was assuming we were going to be short. … That’s just a fluke play. It’s good they probably took that into account.”
Actually, the explanation was that Alzner tipped another player's shot, coach Adam Oates said. Officials aren't supposed to take intent into account, making the puck-over-the-glass penalty one of the rare clear-cut instances where there's no room for interpretation.
McDonagh and the Rangers learned that lesson the hard way in overtime when the shutdown defenseman who had been on the ice for the previous 3:04 missed his pass to Brian Boyle. McDonagh said he “just got a little too under it” and didn't blame his heavy workload.
But it's often a penalty of fatigue.
“That's a tough play for D-men, especially,” Alzner said. “A lot of times you're just trying to get the puck out, you're tired and it's funny how that happens.”
It's an unpopular rule for defensemen like Alzner who spent much of their lives getting a stoppage by sending the puck out. It was put into place after the 2004-05 lockout to create more power plays, and almost eight years later it helped the Caps win a playoff game.
“They’re frustrating to take, but I think they’re a benefit to the game,” Holtby said. “It’s such an easy play now. Guys are so skilled. If you get under pressure, you flip it over. It’s a good penalty. You don’t want to take them, obviously, in a key situation of the game. Both teams are playing under the same rules, so you just have to remember that.”
When those rules favor the Caps, they'll take it.
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