- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

If it seems like officials have called fewer penalties at Washington Capitals games lately, it is because they have.

The number of infractions during Caps games has dropped steadily this season from 10.3 a game in October to 6.9 a game in February. Penalties are down across the league, so that begs the question: Are fewer fouls being called, or are players adjusting to the higher standards in the post-lockout NHL?

“I think there is a lot of stuff being let go,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “Maybe there were too many complaints about too many power plays. Guys have adjusted too, but it is noticeable. There are plays in a game where they let stuff go.”

It is a bit of a Catch-22 for the league. Fans want more goals, so more penalties mean more power plays and more scoring opportunities. But there also has been a backlash at whistle-fests, games that are filled with stoppages of play that become special teams contests.

The rule changes in the “new NHL” also prohibited some of the physical play in the corners and in front of the net. It has been a delicate balancing act for the league to try and find the optimum solution somewhere in the middle.

“[NHL director of officiating] Stephen Walkom has been very vigilant with respect to enforcing the standard. I don’t think we’ve seen a change in standard, clearly not with respect to interference in the neutral zone,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “I think players have adjusted. I think there is a little more physical play in the offensive and defensive zones than there was two years ago. To the extent where the standard has evolved, that is where it has evolved.”

Still, as teams make a push for the playoffs it is hard to believe officials call games as tightly in February and March as they do in October and November. Two seasons ago the number of infractions dropped from 15 a game in October to 12.6 in March (there was a break for the Olympics in February). Last season the number fell from 11.4 in October to 8.5 in February.

“I think later in the season the games get tighter and they let more stuff go,” Caps forward Matt Bradley said. “They might have started the year with good intentions but kind of get back to old habits.”

While officials have relented a bit on some of the fringe hooking calls, it is important for them to adhere to strict standards on interference. Hooking and tripping calls that directly affect the play are easy to see, but interference and holding are the misdeeds that can disrupt a game.

Too often when a forward dumps the puck a defenseman continues to skate backward and impedes the player’s ability to chase after it and forecheck — a textbook interference infraction that goes uncalled.

“I think you want a free-flowing game,” Kolzig said. “That’s the most important thing.”

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