After the loss to Dallas, Predators Captain Roman Josi admitted that the sticks were loose that night and that he was just as guilty as anyone after committing two penalties on the night. The same penalties plagued them against Winnipeg a few nights later, and Mattias Ekholm was very frank about being unable to maintain momentum when your own sticks keep getting in your way.
In short, Ekholm explained that taking penalties is something that is going to happen over the course of any NHL game. If you’re going to be hard to play against, you have to be aggressive, and being aggressive will lead to penalties, but the ideal number of penalty kills you’d like to see in a given night is somewhere around 2-3. Head Coach John Hynes was less than excited about the persistence of these penalties in numbers definitely exceeding two. The team spent time going back over video to examine the penalties, discuss ways to avoid them and work out methods for being aggressive in those particular plays without drawing penalties.
It seemed—after two losses followed by time watching film, meetings, and practice—that the team would be much improved in their return to the ice against the Washington Capitals. And, quite frankly, things looked a lot better for most of the game. Yes, Michael McCarron had a high-sticking call and Mikael Granlund was called for tripping, but both ensuing penalties were handled by the penalty kill units and Juuse Saros. And, as mentioned before, two penalties falls within that magical range of 2-3 penalties that would be considered acceptable by the team.
But then Yakov Trenin was called for kneeing on the heels of a sequence of events that found the Predators down 2-1, but with momentum building in the right direction. The call itself was questionable, as Trenin appeared to be following through with a hit, didn’t extend his knee, and John Carlson’s attempt to evade contact was a bit dramatic, but the almost-immediate result was an Alex Ovechkin power-play goal that widened the Capitals’ lead to 3-1. In spite of trailing by two, the Predators controlled possession and put heavy pressure on the Capitals. That is, of course, until a very weak interference call against Mikael Granlund that all but took away any momentum the Predators had.
By and large, penalties were, once again, the downfall of the Predators’ chances against Washington, but these were penalties of a different caliber. Take the first two penalties as the 2-3 penalties per game that are allowable; the final two were too much. John Hynes has been very heavy in his messaging about only controlling what you can control, and his team was able to control themselves quite well on the night. However, what they couldn’t control was the overzealous calls toward the end of the game that ultimately sunk them. I will note that John Hynes was given a game misconduct call postgame and ultimately fined $25,000 by the NHL.
After the morning skate before the game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Hynes commented on his team’s improvement on the penalty taking front: “We’ve spent a lot of time on [stick penalties] just educating and trying to help the guys. I have so much respect for our guys and the way they go about their business. They care about winning. They care about doing the right things. They understand that there are certain situations where instead of slashing the guy’s stick, you can go stick-on-puck or you can come up under the stick. Little details like that are controllable. They’re well aware of it and we’re trying to coach them the right way. I believe this will continue to rectify itself because of the leadership in the room and because the players care. They want to stay out of the box and they’re understanding what they need to do to do a better job of it.”
Hynes, who I want to point out is outstanding at the teaching side of coaching, has done a great job in a short time reining in what had become a runaway train of stick penalties. The coaches are doing what they can off the ice—now it’s time for the players to continue improving on the ice. As Hynes previously mentioned, they want to play the game that gives them a chance to win, and a game with 2-3 penalties is ideal. Tonight’s tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes will be a great measuring stick to see how well those lessons have become a part of their game on a nightly basis.