Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
Sooooooooo… I was wrong about the Capitals. And I’m sorry.
Early in the season, I waved away the Caps’ struggles, citing some strong puck possession numbers. But as those numbers eroded and the Caps kept losing, I hedged my bets. The Capitals were giving up too many penalties, performing poorly on the kill, and were not really tilting the ice. By the middle of February, I became wary. Cut to early March, when my last ounce of pollyannaish pluck was depleted. I said the Capitals weren’t headed for the playoffs, that their possession was debilitating, and that a turn of good luck wouldn’t be enough to turn their fortunes around.
I was wrong all over. My bad.
So how did I get it wrong? How did the Capitals make the playoffs?
I’ll tell you right now that it’s not possession. The Capitals are still in the bottom third at even-strength shot attempts when the score is close, but then again Toronto made the playoffs too– and they’re the second worst team in the league at that same statistic. So maybe puck possession is a scam and geeks should turn their gaze elsewhere.
No, that’s not it. Puck possession is still the best predictor of future success we’ve got, but a shortened season has given those deterministic factors less time to take effect. Instead, we’re seeing a lot more statistical noise than we might’ve thought.
If you add up a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, you can get a decent idea how statistical variance has lifted or sunk that team. We call it PDO, a meaningless acronym that is sort of a proxy for dumb luck. Halfway into the season, the Capitals were the ninth most unlucky team in league. Now they’re the ninth most lucky. I think that a good chunk of that improvement isn’t due solely to regression, but rather to an improved team defense that helped Braden Holtby play like a stud again. Holtby, who has taken the lion’s share of starts this season, deserves oodles of credit for pulling his team out of a deep hole.
And then there’s Ovi.
The best statistical projections estimated that Alex Ovechkin would score 31 goals and 68 points this season. But that was for a full 82-game season. We’re not even done 48 games yet and Ovi has already tied that goal total. He’s done that by way of a few factors, but the fastest way to explain it is this: Adam Oates.
Oates rescued Ovi from the possession charybdis that is Mike Ribeiro and reunited him with setup man Nick Backstrom. Oates moved Ovi to the right wing, where he was forced to modify his stale tactics. Oates reformulated the power play, positioning Ovechkin as a one-touch goal machine. And, perhaps most importantly, Oates convinced Ovechkin to trust his linemates to carry the puck more, freeing him to focus on finishing rather than playmaking. As I said the other day, the Caps’ fortunes improved exactly when Ovechkin’s performance did. And while I repeatedly spoke aspirationally about this exact thing happening, I never relied on it to make predictions. For a player that so many people said had been “solved” and had grown predictable, Ovechkin’s greatest trick was becoming unpredictable again. Heh.
There’s a lot of other factors that I underestimated, but none more than Marcus Johansson. On February 4th, I wrote a lengthy item detailing Johansson’s wretched season, blithely unaware that he was suffering from a concussion. Soon after, Johansson was benched, and when he returned, he was changed. Sure, he had better linemates, but Mojo should be applauded for transforming from a lowly 38% possession player into one that is decisively driving play.
But that’s kind of true for everyone. Robert Vollman’s indispensible player usage charts help us visualize how the Caps went from meh to whoa. The bottom-right quadrant means sheltered deployments and top-left means tough, two-way play. Red bubbles means negative possession, and blue means driving play. The bigger the circle the more positive or negative those possession stats are.
It’s pretty much global improvement. Again, Johansson is transformed from a liability to an asset. Alex Ovechkin is both more optimized and more productive. Joey Crabb is gone. And the team’s reliable role players– Fehr, Perreault, Backstrom, Carlson, and Alzner– continue to hold the team together. (Ribeiro is still a problem at even strength, but you probably already knew that.)
This isn’t the story of the team’s captain singlehandedly hoisting his team on his back and carrying them into the postseason. Ovechkin absolutely led the effort, but Adam Oates tended to the whole garden.
But there’s one more factor– one more thing I was wrong about, and it’s the big one. Exactly one month ago, I looked at the Capital’s chances of making the post season and I was not enthused. I predicted they’d lose a big chunk of these final games, and I was super duper wrong.
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That was certainly a surprise– but even that is not why the Capitals made the playoffs.
Here is why the Capitals made the playoffs:
I wrote that playoff story around game 32. The Carolina Hurricanes were already 7 games into a pronounced losing streak at that time, but Winnipeg was still a few days out from their own implosion. The Jets then lost five games in a row– opening a window for the Capitals to take the division title.
The Capitals turned their season around by themselves, but that herculean effort would have been meaningless without the unimaginable incompetence of the Southeast Division.
While I wasn’t the rainiest of rainclouds this season, I wasn’t a ray of sunshine. And I was wrong. Errr… kind of. Each time I filed one of these miserable and under-read stories about the Caps’ woes, I mentioned how they might turn it around– how they might pull out of the tailspin and soar again.
And soar is exactly what the Capitals did. I’m filled with gratitude that I was around to watch it. Bravo to Alex Ovechkin, who reclaimed his title as the world’s best hockey player. Bravo to Adam Oates, who enlightened his team with a professorial eye for detail. And bravo to George McPhee, who built the playoff team he said he would.
Now onto the playoffs.
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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