In the Stanley Cup playoffs, physical play is expected, but the quantity of penalties handed out in this Eastern Conference first-round series that’s tied at two wins apiece — as well as the number of infractions being called leaguewide this postseason — may not continue to benefit a Capitals team facing the best offense the NHL has seen since the mid-1990s.
The Capitals’ penalties have yet to hurt them; the Panthers — who had the NHL’s fifth-best power play in the regular season, clicking at 24.4 percent — are 0 for 13 through four games. But penalty killing perfection for a group that denied its opponents 80.4 percent of the time in the regular season (to rank 12th in the league) is unsustainable against Florida’s talent. The Panthers had four 30-goal scorers in the regular season, and those four (Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair and Jonathan Huberdeau) combined for 42 power-play tallies.
After a momentum-swinging Game 4 win, Florida may be feeling its early-series nerves starting to fade. The Panthers are one lucky bounce — or one perfect snipe — away from getting back into a rhythm on the power play.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Sunrise, Fla.
“I think we still have a little bit of another level to get to,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette said after Game 4. “We’ve got our work cut out on the power play and a few of these little things. We’ve got another gear. [Monday’s win] was a very encouraging sign.”
Washington’s power play was streaky in the regular season and ultimately finished 23rd at 18.8 percent. At points in the postseason, that group has looked lost, but it’s still clicking at 29.4 percent (5 for 17). Winger Tom Wilson, a member of the power play’s second wave of late, converted in Game 1 but hasn’t played since and remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
Wilson had four goals and six assists on the power play in the regular season; he was a big body in front of the net seeking deflections and tip-ins. T.J. Oshie has flourished in that role with the first unit, with two of his three goals in this series — including the first score Monday — coming from that net-front position. But Wilson’s presence, after a career offensive year, is missed in a physical series.
On Monday night, the Panthers ended up getting four power plays compared with five for the Capitals. In the second period alone, the Capitals had an early power-play chance, then couldn’t capitalize during a disorganized five-on-three late. In between, Washington was assessed three straight minor penalties.
“It’s power play, penalty kill, power play, power play, penalty kill, penalty kill, penalty kill — and it’s just, the period’s broken up,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought in the third period we got moving in the right direction and pressed and we got to where we wanted, but there’s not a lot of room out there five-on-five.”
Still, the Capitals, inspired by their efforts to create as much havoc as possible in the defensive zone, remain hopeful about their penalty kill. It’s that effort, Oshie said last week, that has led to the unit’s recent success.
“Guys are just stepping up, making plays. … We are limiting their shots, limiting their chances,” he said after Washington’s Game 3 win Saturday. “When they have gotten some, [the goalies] have been there to shut the door or we’ve had someone come up with a big block.
“Special teams are really important in the postseason. You want to get that edge.”