On Wednesday night, the Capitals lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout. That game carried extra weight as those teams are likely to face one another in the first round of the playoffs: Washington as the one seed, Philadelphia as the eight.
On Thursday afternoon, esteemed hockey data visualization person Micah McCurdy released the startlingly pretty graph you see excerpted above. It shows first-round match-ups and each team’s likelihood to advance past that round and beyond.
Micah’s model has the Capitals facing the Flyers — and losing — in the first round. Sorta.
Post-season chances [fixed].
Numbers below 10% not shown. Los Angeles heavy-ish favourites. pic.twitter.com/a63yDT2cYG
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 31, 2016
In the model, the Flyers beat the Capitals 56 percent of the time.
I’d like to begin by qualifying what we’re looking at. This is the result of a particular predictive model applied to likely playoff match-ups and their likely victors as of this moment in time. This is not evidence that the model or the person does not like or does not believe in the Capitals. Further, while 56 is greater than 50, this is not a very strong lean in Philadelphia’s favor (cf. Los Angeles over Nashville, woof).
Here’s what Micah includes in his model, which he calls Oscar:
Recent 5v5 unblocked shot generation;
Recent 5v5 unblocked shot suppression;
Lifetime 5v5 goaltender save percentage, diluted;
Recent 5v4 shot generation;
Recent 4v5 shot suppression;
Recent team 5v5 goals per shot-on-goal (“shooting percentage”);
and Home ice advantage.
It’s a tasty predictive stew, and the stew gets a bit stronger if you leave out the Capitals’ torrid autumn and their excellent win/loss record. While the Caps have had a great season, over the past twenty games it’s the Flyers who have been doing better in the metrics that probably correlate better with future success. The Flyers’ 52.5 possession beats the Caps’ 49.5 percent for example.
It’s at this point that you might come up with reasons to wave away the Caps’ recent stats. This is your prerogative, and I’m with you to some extent. While I don’t buy into the excuse that motivation a) has caused the Caps to play less well since mid-December, and b) will allow them to quickly get their groove back in the playoffs, I do think there are reasons to be confident about their chances. There are many of them, but I’ll share just one:
The Capitals have not at any point this season lost four of their last seven games.
The Flyers have had an exciting burst of success and fun lately, but I think the Capitals would win in a seven-game series. I could point to career goaltending numbers or superior special teams, but I think even Wednesday’s game suggests something more concrete and immediate. Japers Rink contributor Muneeb Alam collects shot-attempt differentials as head-to-head stats per game. Below is that information for the Caps at Flyers.
The number where two players meet is the Flyers’ attempt differential when they’re both on the ice. So a +7 means the Flyers got 7 more shot attempts than the Caps, and -3 means the Flyers got 3 fewer than the Caps. The brighter the color, the more those two players saw each other during 5v5.
Aside from a truly terrible showing by the fourth line (Richards, Winnik, and Wilson), the Capitals mostly outplayed the Flyers during 5v5. All those circles– that’s the Caps winning the matchup. If that Caps can pinpoint what didn’t work, make a few lineup tweaks, exploit their modest shooting talent advantage, and use home-ice advantage to get preferable match-ups, the Caps should add be able to add even-strength domination to their special terms and percentage advantages.
(P.S. I might also want to see more of TJ Oshie with Jay Beagle.)
For the record, I don’t dismiss Micah’s model. Philosophically I’m on the same page. And I won’t countenance the dismissal of serious academic work just because we believe the Caps lack urgency. That rejection is too easy and it is clearly rooted in aspirational thinking.
I think it’s abundantly obvious that the Capitals have outperformed this season. While they have been pretty damn good, they haven’t been historically damn good. The Flyers have looked better in the stuff that matters recently, but the Caps have the tools, time, and talent to close the gap before some terrible elimination game happens. Oh god, I can feel it already.
And maybe that’s why this story is so sticky. This pretty graphic, backed up by serious scholarship, feeds into Washington’s pernicious reputation as playoff chokers. Even though most of the team’s players weren’t even born when that reputation began. And yet they’ll never ever shake that reputation. Until they do.
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