Rookie players make rookie mistakes. It happens. When it does, you hope it doesn’t cost the team too much, you learn from it and then you move on.
When you have two rookie defensemen in your lineup, however, those rookie mistakes can turn very, very costly. That was evident in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Less than two minutes into the game, Christian Djoos chased after a puck behind his own net while under pressure from two Florida forecheckers. He attempted a backhanded pass that hit off the back of the net and was collected by Jarred McCann who set up Connor Brickley for the easy goal.
“Not the best start, obviously,” Djoos said after the game. “Not a good play.”
It looks like Djoos tried to chip the puck past the forecheckers into the middle, probably to Lars Eller who was trailing the play. That puck needs to be along the boards. When you try to clear up the middle while under pressure, you risk giving up the puck in a very dangerous area of the ice which is exactly what happened.
With two players on his tail, Djoos should have fired that puck along the boards, preferably with his forehand which is much stronger than the backhand. He may not have had enough time to go to the forehand given the pressure, but that puck still needs to go along the boards with as much power behind it as possible. If it’s a turnover, fine, at least it is in the corner or along the perimeter rather than directly behind the net. If it’s icing, fine. Icing is better than a goal.
But Djoos wasn’t the only player guilty of having a rookie moment. Madison Bowey's inexperience was on display late in the first period as he tried to defend Florida forward Vincent Trochek.
Trocheck skated the puck into the Caps’ defensive zone. Bowey forced him to the outside which is the right way to play it, but he couldn’t rub him out along the boards. Instead, Trocheck was able to shake Bowey off and turn the corner on him to get in alone on Philipp Grubauer prompting the desperation hook from Bowey.
When Bowey is able to force him to the boards, he needs to finish off Trocheck and snuff out the rush.
Florida would score on the resulting power play to take a 2-0 lead at the end of the first, a deficit the Capitals were not able to overcome.
The good news is that both Djoos and Bowery are going to continue to get better with every passing game. They are both young players at 23 and 22 respectively and mistakes are expected for players in their first NHL season. They will develop and improve which we already saw through Saturday's game.
Djoos scored the Capitals’ lone goal on the night and Bowey played strong defensively the rest of the way. The coaches seemed to reward their play as well with more minutes. Djoos played 3:02 in the first, 3:16 in the second and 6:06 in the third while Bowey played 4:04, 6:09 and 6:18.
“The young guys have been fine,” Barry Trotz told reporters. “They're going to make mistakes. They make the same mistakes some of the older guys are making.”
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The question is do the Caps have enough time to wait for them to continue to develop this season or do they need to improve the defense now?
There’s no question having two rookies in the team's top six is not an ideal scenario. It is hard for the coaches to shelter them as they normally would like. It is also having a strain on the other veteran defensemen who are taking on a heavier workload as a result. The 37-year-old veteran Brooks Orpik played 16:56 through two periods and John Carlson finished the game with a season-high 29:48 on Saturday.
You can’t win a Stanley Cup in October and November, but you can lose it if you get buried too far in the standings. The Caps are 4-4-1 through nine games and have six games between now and when Matt Niskanen is eligible to return from LTIR, assuming he is ready at that point.
Can the defense as it’s currently constructed keep the Caps afloat until Niskanen’s return? Is it good enough with Niskanen in the lineup? Those are questions Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan are going to have to answer quickly.
Penalties weren’t the main reason the Caps fell to the Panthers on Saturday night, but taking six minors, including four in the second period, sure didn’t help matters.
“Penalties have been a little bit of an ongoing thing,” Coach Barry Trotz said after the 4-1 defeat at Capital One Arena. “It took all the rhythm out. It forced a big portion of our bench to sit there, get cold. In the second period, it was back-to-back-to-back-to-back, and it just sort of took all of the momentum. And now you’re chasing the game big time.”
Evgenii Dadonov scored on the power play late in the first period to stake Florida to a 2-0 lead. Then Vincent Trocheck closed the door midway through the second, sniping a 5-on-3 shot over Philipp Grubauer to make it 3-0.
“We shot ourselves again in the foot a little bit with the penalties,” Grubauer said. “We got to move our feet. I wouldn’t call it lazy, I would call it being behind the play.”
Lars Eller was whistled for holding and tripping. Nicklas Backstrom doubled up, too, with interference and tripping infractions. Madison Bowey got called for hooking and Evgeny Kuznetsov was cited for high sticking. All of the penalties were assessed in the game’s first 33 minutes.
The impact of penalties, particularly when they’re taken so close to one another, cannot be disputed. In addition to the obvious advantage they give the other team, penalties also disrupt the flow of the game and the lines, while keeping goal scorers like Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov stapled to the bench. And they’re even harder to kill off on the second night of a back-to-back.
“We took it to them and did all the right things 5 on 5 …but again all the penalties, it’s disrupting the flow of our team,” Eller said. “It’s hurting us a lot. I am guilty and other guys too. That’s a little thing that will make a big difference for us if we can improve on that.”
The veteran center added: “It’s an easy fix. It’s a question of being a little bit more smart, taking an extra step [instead of reaching with the stick]. That will improve our game a lot.”
In nine games this season, the Caps have been assessed more penalties than their opponent five times. They’ve only taken fewer penalties than an opponent once.
“We have to nip the penalties in the bud,” Trotz said. “We seem to stack ‘em up. You’ll take the odd one but when you start stacking them up it’s a recipe for disaster for us.”