Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY
Sunday night’s defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins has left some Washington Capitals fans in angst. This team, who has been described as a Stanley Cup contender so often this season, did not look as such in their 6-2 loss. But that’s just the most recent point in a longer, concerning pattern.
I’ve caught myself recalibrating my expectations for the Caps over the last few weeks. As of right now, I no longer think they are the Team of Destiny. This is not The Year. The road they’re on right now ends in the first or second round of the playoffs.
It’s not too late to change course, but we must first acknowledge that the course we’re on now is a bad one.
What follows is my case for the Caps, as we’ve seen them lately, not being a contender. You might decide that some of these reasons are invalid or weaker than others or redundant to one another. That’s fine, but I bet you’ll agree with the grand conclusion: These Caps aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year. Unless something big changes.
Shot-attempt differential is the best predictor we have of a team’s postseason fortune. Through the first half of the season, the Caps took 51.4 percent of the shot attempts during 5v5 (weighted by score situation). Even before the Caps’ excellent special teams, that could have been good enough for a respectable playoff run, but it didn’t last.
Since the trade deadline, the Caps have taken just 48.2 of the shot attempts, 18th best in the league, barely above the 47.7 that the Oates!Caps put up in 2014. For a 48-percent team, a postseason appearance would be a gift. A deep run would be implausible.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Barry Trotz told the Post about his adjustments in the stretch run. Maybe he’s right, but, to abuse the cliche, the wheel appears to have a flat tire right now.
Rumor has it that Alex Ovechkin suffered at injury at some point this season. See if you can guess when.
“It still bothers me,” Ovechkin told the Post last week. “But of course when we have that kind of schedule, it lets you know right away that it bothers you, that it’s sore.”
This month, Ovechkin has recorded more than five 5v5 shot attempts just once, a nine spot against
Detroit Carolina on the 15th. Six of Ovechkin’s 10 lowest shot-volume games have come in March. He had two 5v5 shot attempts against Pittsburgh last night.
For a sui generis volume player like Ovechkin, this should all be alarming. Yet, all signs suggest that the Capitals will not pull Ovechkin out of the lineup before the playoffs.
John Carlson and Brooks Orpik ate up tons of ice time last season as the Caps’ top defensive pairing, but 2015-16 has been a modest disaster by comparison. Orpik missed 40 games during the heart of the campaign, and Carlson’s count is 24 and climbing.
The result is a defensive corps that has been through upheaval. 2014-15 was remarkable in the stability of the top-4 pairings. The result is a Caps defensive corps that doesn’t look as stout as Trotz’s reputation implies.
Here’s 5v5 game pace this season, in 10-game rolling averages.
The game has run away from them. The low-event/high-possession Capitals of the first month and a half are gone; now the Caps let the pace of the game run wild and cling desperately to slightly under half of the shots.
Braden Holtby was playing at a Vezina level before Christmas. I’ve heard that goaltending is chaos given form, and Braden’s save percentage has been chaotic.
Since January, Holtby has been merely adequate. Had he put up these numbers when the Caps were playing well, there’d be little harm in it. But now that the Caps are impressing no one with their 5v5 play, the absence of Holtby’s superiority is more noticeable. J.P. broke down where Holtby’s fall off is coming from.
On Holtby, 10-game rolling 5v5 Sv% by shot "danger" – eliminated really soft ones, not making as many tougher stops. pic.twitter.com/gzXdxUED2u
— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) March 21, 2016
It’s the big goals. The ones that we would have no business expecting him to stop except that he had been stopping them for the first 30 games.
“I hope I never reach the top of my game.” That’s what Holtby said last February.
The past three months might be sobering, but there’s good reason to think Holtby will bounce back in the long run.
What follows is a complete list of teams who have a lower goals-for percentage than the Caps in the first period: Arizona, Detroit, Buffalo, and Toronto.
Outscored 41 to 33 during 5v5 and 56 to 48 overall means that Washington is spotting its opponent goals and playing from behind too often.
That ought not happen in the playoffs, lest the Caps run into an arch conservative defense with lots of shot blocking and a seemingly impenetrable goalie. (If that last sentence made you queasy, thanks for being a Capitals fan for the last 6-plus years.) I’m not convinced, come mid April, that the Caps will still be able to own 57 percent of the shots and 71 percent of the goals when they’re down a goal. Rather than bank on the continuation of their reputation as the comeback Caps, it’d be more prudent for Washington to instead score early and often.
In addition to Braden Holtby’s amazing fall, the Capitals owe much of their success this season to stuff they shouldn’t necessarily count on in the playoffs.
Special teams: The Caps have the league’s best power play. But so did the 2010 Caps, and it got them one solitary goal in the first round that year.
I’m also reminded of last season’s playoffs, where the Capitals were sorta bad at getting power plays (28 in 14 games) and completely terrible at converting them into goals (10 percent).
High shooting percentages: Here are the all situation shooting percentages for Caps forwards this season compared to their career numbers.
|Player||2015-16 Sh%||Career Sh%|
The only player who’s not punching above his weight is the world’s greatest scorer, Alex Ovechkin. The Caps have had hot hands all season, and it’s possible that a couple of them might be able to hang on (hint: their jersey numbers add up to 157), but regression comes for us all in the end. The uniformly lucky Caps probably can’t keep this up until June.
Close-games: The Capitals have been in 37 one-goal games. They’ve won 26 and taken a point from another 5. The Caps love one-goal games. They can’t get enough of ’em. But we know that a one-goal game win record is too random to sustain, and Pat has written about how successful close-game teams tend to make an early exit from the second season. It’d be better if the Caps got into the habit of blowing out their opponents, running up the score and never relenting. You know, like Pittsburgh did on Sunday.
This was an aggressively pessimistic article, I know. I’ll leave you with this: All is not lost. Nothing I’ve described here amounts to prophecy. There’s a lot that could change between now and game one of round one, but it seems to me that passivity would be the wrong response to the alarming patterns we’re seeing.
It’s time for changes. It’s time to rest the injured players and sit the weaker ones. It’s time to drill on breakouts and zone entries. It’s time to instill discipline and earn more power plays. It’s time to add one of those “wrinkles” to the power play we’ve been hearing so much about. It’s time to score first and win by five. It’s time for John Carlson to get healthy and Braden Holtby to get angry. It’s time to split up Chimera and Wilson. It’s time to give Taylor Chorney the respect he’s earned.
The season ends in 19 days. The Caps can still get back on track and play like champions again.
*Note: I swear I wrote the first draft of this article before the Penguins game.
Lots of stats from war-on-ice.com
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