Increase in NHL free throws leaves Capitals with a small margin of error

A few days ago, Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette complained that his team didn’t have many chances in the playoffs. In the first-round series against the Florida Panthers, the whistle was few and far between.

But Laviolette may have spoken too soon.

Losing 13 penalties in the Capitals’ Game 4 on Monday resulted in five strong games for the Capitals and four for the Panthers. Others offset, resulting in a stretch of 4-on-4 hockey. Notably, only one power goal was scored: Washington’s TJ Oshie scored after John Carlson’s shot missed the winger’s leg. After four games, the Panthers — one of the best teams in the regular season — remain the only team in the playoffs yet to score in a powerhouse game.

Despite Washington’s success in the penalty shootout, the Capitals may have little room for error. Penalty shootouts have increased this postseason, creating more opportunities for special teams to play. The Capitals lost 3-2 in overtime on Monday, but the outcome could have been different, for example, if Washington could score in a strong 5-3 second quarter. While Florida didn’t score in the power game, center Catville Hager hit a shot to tie the game after a 4-for-4 possession change led to a 2-1 for the Panthers.

Every opportunity counts.

“It’s a physics series,” Laviolette said. “It’s been four games now and it’s getting deeper and deeper. So you have two teams playing hard against each other and there’s a lot of emotion on the ice. We have to try to be more disciplined and not rely on penalties.

“You don’t want to let their power play too much,” Laviolette said later.

In the first 32 games heading into Tuesday’s game, teams averaged 4.11 power play chances per game, according to data available on the NHL’s website. That’s a sizable increase from last year’s playoffs, when teams averaged 2.74 bursts per game.

The uptick runs counter to the belief that playoff time is here, and referees tend to swallow their whistle. The thinking is that since players tend to be more physical in the playoffs, referees typically accept slams and other possible infractions they won’t slip during the regular season. But in 8 of the past 10 playoffs, according to ESPN, each game has had more power-play opportunities than the regular season.

This year also proved that. During the regular season, the team averaged 2.89 power play chances per game, and for penalties alone, the team averaged 3.7 per game. So far, that number is closer to 5.9 in the first round.

The increase may be the result of a smaller sample size — penalties could theoretically fall as the playoffs progress — but it’s interesting that others have noticed a difference.

Calgary Flames head coach Daryl Sutter said last week: “Obviously it’s a different way to call it the regular season.”

“At the start of the playoffs, there were more free throws than I expected,” Oilers forward Derek Ryan told reporters.

All penalties can lead to a suspension — making it difficult for teams to build a rhythm. However, Laviolette said that was no excuse for the Capitals. He pointed out how Florida State can execute on offense despite their high number of penalties. The Panthers held a 32-16 lead in field goal scoring despite Washington’s seven free throws against Washington’s six.

In four games, Washington took 43 penalties in the series against Florida. The calls are slightly in favor of Washington, which has penalized Florida’s 20 to 23.

“We have an experienced team that knows how to handle these situations,” Capitals defenseman Justin Schultz said. “Every game is different and we have to be ready for every shift.”

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