There are a variety of reasons the Capitals find themselves in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings with 52 points, good enough for the eighth and final playoff spot, but shaky enough to have four teams within two points of them.
Penalties, perhaps more than anything, are what is keeping the Capitals from being a legitimate threat in the East.
Through 48 games, the Caps have taken 624 penalty minutes. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers have taken more.
More importantly, the Caps have taken 190 minor penalties, which has resulted in far more penalty kill time this season than power-play time, which is what fuels the Caps’ offensive engine.
“It puts our most offensive guys on the bench,” Capitals left wing Brooks Laich said. “Penalties are going to happen. Some games you’re going to get away with everything and other games you touch a guy with a little stick and you’re going to get called.
“But as players you don’t want to give the referee any reason to call something. Keep your stick on the ice, move your feet, don’t reach. Little things you’re taught when you’re a kid.”
Through 48 games this season the Caps have spent 286 minutes, 16 seconds on the penalty kill. Only five other NHL teams have spent more time killing penalties. By comparison, they’ve spent 252:54 on the power play, a differential of minus-29:22. Only the Devils, Red Wings and Bruins have a worse differential.
“Responsibility has to come from within,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “Guys have to be more in control. For example, Chimmer [Jason Chimera] punches a guy in overtime there [against San Jose].
“That’s a mistake. That can’t happen, in the heat of a moment, when a guy is irritating you. That should have been a penalty.
“Putting the puck in the stands is a mistake. High sticking in the offensive zone, that’s a mistake. You’ve got to be in control of your stick.
“When we do a better job of that it will really help. It’s one thing if they break you down and you trip a guy because he beat you. OK, those happen. Or if you’re tired, you get hemmed in and you shoot it into the stands for that reason, that’s different. But those other ones hurt.”
In Wednesday night’s 4-3 loss to the Penguins, the Capitals took three tripping penalties, two of them by Mike Green on Evgeni Malkin, to give the Penguins power plays. In Friday night’s 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus, the Caps took four minor penalties that led to power plays.
Green leads the Caps with 21 minor penalties, followed by Alex Ovechkin , Troy Brouwer , Nicklas Backstrom  and Steve Oleksy .
Laich said it’s up to the players to recognize what kind of penalties are being called on a given night and to adapt accordingly.
“Some refs let you play a little more and some refs really try to enforce the rules as they’re written,” he said. “We’re aware of that. The guys in our room have been in the league a while and we have a rapport with them and try to talk to them every game. It’s on the leaders, the guys who wear the letters, to educate the guys and say, ‘this guy calls everything.’”