WASHINGTON — Capitals coach Todd Reirden tried to send a message. Whether it gets through to his players is an open question.
For much of the first period in Sunday’s disappointing 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and left wing Dmitrij Jaskin watched from the bench after their back-to-back penalties stifled Washington’s early momentum. For the NHL’s most penalized team it was nothing new.
So when the second line’s turn came up after an expired power play, it was Travis Boyd, not Kuznetsov, who took the ice. Jaskin, who has had trouble getting consistent playing time this season anyway, was left off the third line.
Instead, Reirden moved fourth-line wingers Andre Burakovsky and Devante Smith-Pelly up with center Nic Dowd and went with nine forwards for the final 8 minutes, 51 seconds of the period. Third-line winger Brett Connolly hadn’t done anything obviously wrong, but he was collateral damage and didn’t take a shift, either.
“We talk about it,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think we all pro. It's not a personal thing, it's just a message to everybody.”
Indeed, Kuznetsov was out on the ice to take the opening faceoff of the second period. But it’s also Feb. 3. If that message hasn’t taken hold yet, it’s fair to ask if it will be at all.
Players will never be happy with every call. T.J. Oshie was furious that he ended a Washington power play late in the game by getting his stick inside the armpit of Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. But when you’re the league’s most penalized team and this keeps happening on a night-to-night basis, something has to be done.
The Caps have taken 191 minor penalties in 52 games. The teams in the middle of the pack in the 31-team league are at 172. Those extra minors add up and stress a 24th-ranked penalty kill (77.9 percent) just trying to keep its head above water.
“[Reirden has] sent that message a couple of times,” Oshie said. “Even me. It was a little late in the game there, but having the power play you can’t take that penalty there. I wasn’t happy with it, obviously. But either way I gotta find a way to not get my stick in there and maybe just live to fight another day. Go down, break it out and score on the next one.”
That didn’t happen in a 1-0 loss, their first to the Bruins since 2014. Washington played an ugly game in the second period, mismanaged the puck, and didn’t create many dangerous chances for Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask at all. By the time the Caps started flying late in the game it was too late. Boston held them off and a chance to gain ground in the Metropolitan Division and grab sole possession of second place was gone.
Jaskin was called for a hold at 5:30 of the first. The Caps killed that one nicely with Boston generating hardly any offensive zone time until the end. But just seconds after that penalty ended, Kuznetsov slashed Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy and went right to the box himself. Washington was lucky that time Boston didn’t score.
Kuznetsov wasn’t around to answer questions afterward so no telling his thoughts on the punishment. He did draw a penalty on Boston forward Patrice Bergeron just 15 seconds after his own penalty ended and stayed out for half of the ensuing power play. But after that, he sat and watched, missing three shifts in the final 8:51 of the period.
It was a high-profile, if temporary, benching by a first-year head coach desperate to make his team more disciplined as the good feelings from Friday’s win against the Calgary Flames dissipated. The Caps are 4-8-3 since Dec. 31. Penalties are just part of the problem, but it’s an issue that needs solving.
“As you get past the All-Star break and you start making a push toward the playoffs, that's an area we have to get better in. We've taken far too many minor penalties with our sticks,” Reirden said. “That's been discussed and that's the best thing for our team. We have to be more disciplined if we're going to have success moving forward from here, and I thought the last 30 games is a good time to implement that."
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