Just prior to the start of the 2012-13 regular season, I chatted with a couple of players about how the importance of special teams would be magnified in a shortened NHL season.
“Special teams have always played a big role in hockey games,” Caps left wing Matt Hendricks told me. “But in a short season and the amount of pressure on each team to get those big points, you’re going to see special teams really become a factor now where it’s going to be playoff hockey through and through.”
If the importance of special teams is ratcheted up in an abbreviated campaign, then the corollary is that discipline becomes more important as well.
“The games where we have eight, nine or 10 penalties are the ones that kill us,” said Washington defenseman Karl Alzner. “If we’re going to be doing that often, then we’re going to die out before other teams. It just takes too much out of you.
A big part of Washington’s 0-3 start is connected to taking penalties in multiples and/or in tight clusters, which taxes the penalty-killing unit.
On opening night in Tampa, the Caps committed six straight minor penalties over a span of about 27 minutes. They went into the third period all even at 3-3, but the last two of those six successive minors came within a span of 64 seconds early in the third period. That gave the Lightning a 5-on-3, and Martin St. Louis scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal.
St. Louis’ strike was the second of three power-play goals the Caps allowed in a 6-3 loss.
In Washington’s home opener on Tuesday against Winnipeg, the Caps took a 1-0 lead on a Matt Hendricks goal midway through the first period. But two minor penalties in a span of just 2:56 led to two Winnipeg power-play goals, and the Jets cruised to a 4-2 win.
On Thursday against Montreal, the Caps played well in the first and were even going into the second period for the first time in the young season. But Washington took three minors in a span of just 2:41, giving Montreal a 5-on-3 opportunity on which it converted. The Habs scored another power-play goal soon after, one of four second-period tallies that fueled a 4-1 win.
The Caps have had more minors against them than they’ve had power plays, and killing so many penalties – especially when they’re tightly bunched – makes life difficult when the team is playing three games in four nights or on the second of back-to-back nights, as the Caps are set to do tonight in New Jersey.
“When you look at it that way with back-to-back games, big minutes, shot-blocking minutes, hard hockey minutes,” says Hendricks, “it definitely will affect teams going into the next night. There is no doubt about that. So we’re going to have to do our best to play hard, play smart and stay out of the penalty box.”
Tonight the Caps face a stingy New Jersey defense that has yet to allow an even-strength goal in two games. The Devils have allowed just 30 even-strength shots on goal in more than 90 minutes of even-strength time in their two games this season.
Washington’s power play is 2-for-12 in three games, but it has moved the puck well and has generally occupied the offensive zone for most of its time on ice. The Caps are hoping their own power-play unit gets enough reps one of these nights to make the difference in a game.
“The power play can provide a huge momentum swing,” says Alzner. “You can be down 2-0 and playing terrible, get one power play and score and the whole game changes. I think it will tell a lot this season, teams that are doing well on special teams.”