Photo: Patrick McDermott
The Washington Capitals are a dangerous team when they’re trailing. We saw this twice last weekend as the Caps erased multi-goal leads by both the Predators and the Stars. And though they lost both those games, we learned a lot about how the Caps can perform when facing adversity.
When down a goal, the Capitals are the fourth most aggressive team in the league, possessing 59.7 percent of shot attempts. That’s a big jump from tie games, when the Caps hold a still-respectable 10th place shot-attempt percentage with 52.4 percent.
But when the Caps manage to get the lead, which they do most of the time, their possession drops to 46.9 percent, a stark drop-off, and a middling 13th in the league. That partially explains why the Caps rarely win by more than two goals.
All teams do this to some extent, but the Capitals’ meekness with the lead has been one of their noted weaknesses— even during that torrid winning streak last month.
Coaches often direct their teams to become less adventurous once they gain the lead, which is a primary factor in relatively lower possession. Barry Trotz does that to some extent (you can see it in the forecheck), but his personnel choices based on score are playing a role as well.
Below is a graph of how Caps forwards’ ice time gets distributed depending on the score. The blue bar is when the Caps are leading, the gray bar is when the teams are tied, and the red bar is trailing. So if the red bar is bigger than the blue bar, that player is getting used more when the Caps are trying to mount a comeback. My observations follow.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to isolate Trotz’s usage of those players from how those players perform in the various circumstances. The question I asked myself went something like this: Are there any players who do markedly better or worse based on the score? And do those improvements or declines happen on offense or defense?
The table and chart below show the number of shot attempts the Caps get per 60 minutes of 5v5 based on the score of the game.
And for our visual learners:
And here’s that same data expressed as percentage change ([leading – tied] / tied and [trailing – tied] / tied).
On that note, onto the defense.
This is the same calculation and visualization, just with the opponent’s shot attempts per 60 instead of the Caps. Think of it as shot suppression; lower numbers and shorter bars are now preferable.
And the chart version:
And the percentage change compared to tie games:
This was an open-ended study without a hard agenda, but I think I might’ve accidentally come up with some instructive conclusions.
First and foremost, winning lots of games by one goal is not the foundation of a championship season. The Caps need to prove they can blow teams out, and that requires keeping one’s metaphorical foot on the metaphorical gas once you’ve got the lead.
But if you’re trying to come back, you want your European forwards to get a lot of opportunities to attack. That means big offensive-zone shifts for Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Burakovsky. A top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Fehr would likely generate the most Caps shot attempts, though they’d also allow the most by opponents as well. That’s probably worth the trade-off.
When trailing, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward will do a splendid job not letting the other team run up the score, though they’re not being used that way now. Once you get that lead back, it might be wise to shorten the bench lest Chimera or Jay Beagle allow a shooting gallery.
There might be a lot more wisdom to mine from this, though it’s also possible that unseen biases are corrupting these data. Let me know below if you see anything I missed.
Notes: All stats are current as of January 14th. For changes in ice time percentage compared to tie game, I used absolute percentage change, not relative. For changes in shot attempts / 60 based on score, I used relative percentage change. I’ve kept all the graphs sorted alphabetically for better comparison among them.
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