For most of the regular season, the Capitals have played a pretty disciplined game, a nice change from previous years where the parade to the penalty box was a constant. Since the start of the season, only the Penguins (shockingly) have a lower penalties-taken-per-60 rate than the Caps’ buttoned-up 3.12, and the Caps have the fifth-best Net Pen/60 rate at .40 - meaning they’ve drawn almost a half a penalty more a game than they’ve taken.
Lately, however, they’ve been trending in the wrong direction. Over their last 15 games, they’ve taken 59 penalties for a Pen/60 rate of 4.16 - basically a full minor penalty-per-game difference. Thankfully the uptick in penalties taken has coincided with penalties drawn, which are also up over 4 per game (giving us all ample time to admire the sparkly power play), but it’s troubling to see this previously well-behaved squad start to fray at the edges.
Perhaps more troubling is just who is taking an excessive amount of these penalties: the fourth line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and Carl Hagelin.
Over the last ten games, that trio has combined for 11 of the team’s 29 penalties, including Hathaway’s minor in last night’s loss. That’s just under 38% of the penalty total for a trio that only plays about 23% of the game.
Here’s a look at how that shakes out when compared to individual ice time:
That’s not really what you want from your fourth line, or any line.
It’s not just that these guys are taking more penalties than they should for the amount of ice time they get, either. They’re also sitting in the box when they should be killing penalties, since all three are key members of the team’s penalty-killing squad - in fact, Dowd leads all Caps’ forwards in shorthanded ice time per game with just over two minutes, with Hagelin (1:52) close behind and Hathaway fifth among forwards at 1:01 per game.
Having those guys in the penalty box instead of on the ice has at times cost the Caps. In the heartbreaker of a loss to Boston back on Thursday, Hathaway was nabbed for the first Bruins power-play goal, while Dowd had a great view from the penalty box of the Bruins’ late game-winning goal. In the 4-2 loss to Vancouver a few days earlier, those same two players were in the box for each of the Canucks’ two power-play strikes (including, again, the game-winner). And Hathaway’s careless double-minor against the Bruins back on the tenth got their scoring started in what would become a 7-3 drubbing.
It’s not just the penalties taken, either - it’s the timing of these infractions. Of the 12 penalties taken by this line, six of them were taken in the last five minutes of a period (with Dowd’s double-minor against Boston coming just outside of that window, at 14:42 of the first period. Eight of the 12 were taken in tied or one-goal games (Dowd’s double-minor again a notable exception, with the Caps up 2-0 at the time before Boston’s power-play woke up their team).
It is worth noting that these guys are “energy guys” whose job it is to provide a spark, especially when the team is playing badly - so asking them to walk up to the line but not cross it can result in this. And they’ve certainly done their fair share of trying to even the score penalty-wise, as well. While he’s taken five penalties over the last ten games, Dowd has also drawn four by his opponents; Hathaway’s drawn another two, and Hagelin’s drawn one. They are, and have been since they were put together as a line, highly successful at getting in the other team’s face and making them take penalties.
But that’s not enough to cancel out the impact they’re having with their own parade to the penalty box - especially since they’re not contributing much offensively, either.
So what’s the answer here? Well, as much as Peter Laviolette loves to play his grinders late in periods/games and in defensive situations (and let’s face it, so do most NHL coaches), perhaps that fourth line needs to be reined in a bit. If anyone on the third or even second line (*cough*McMichael*cough*) were to commit this many penalties in a short period of time, or make costly mistakes late in periods of close games, it’s likely they’d find themselves stapled to the bench. Maybe that’s what needs to happen here.
Because when you’re taking penalties this regularly, you start to outweigh any defensive upside you may bring to the game. It’s certainly not the only problem or perhaps even the biggest problem facing the Caps in recent weeks, but it’s without a doubt been a contributing factor - and it’s completely preventable.