The Washington Capitals have a 5-4-1 record since their time off in mid-February. Normally, being a bit above a .500 points percentage isn’t bad, but for a team with Cup aspirations it’s been dispiriting.
Some have blamed the bye week for the Caps’ slump. One fan put it this way:
f$&k the bye week
— Capital Bobbler (@capitalbobbler) March 1, 2017
I don’t agree. I watched and covered Thursday’s game at San Jose, and — besides the result and the hour — I thought it was a solid game of road hockey by the league’s best team. I’m pretty confident the Caps are still good. Maybe they’re just not as lucky anymore.
I looked at some basic offensive and defensive stats and split the season before and after the bye week. We’ve only had ten games since the break, so your typical small sample warnings apply.
The Capitals have had only a tiny drop in their offensive rates. Total shot attempts have fallen 4.3 percent. Expected goals (a function of shot volume and quality) have also dropped from 2.7 to 2.3, which is not insignificant, but both of those declines are dwarfed by the stark decline in shooting percentage.
Before the bye week it was 10 percent. Now it’s 7.7 percent.
So there’s been slightly lower offensive volume, but, more importantly, there’s been a rash of bad puck luck. I think that’s what made the Sharks game so frustrating, especially in plays like these:
The Caps have almost tied it up twice in the third period. Here's the first chance that went off the post. pic.twitter.com/1exz2zo6Eh
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) March 10, 2017
Here’s John Carlson’s slapshot that just bounced over the top of the net pic.twitter.com/2kO4gzZ4Hq
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) March 10, 2017
On the defensive end, the story is a bit different.
There has been a noticeable increase in opponent volume, to 9.5 percentage change. That’s troubling, but get this: expected goals have not budged at all, staying put at 2.4 per 60 minutes.
It seems that the Caps’ opponents are getting more volume of late, but that added volume hasn’t been as dangerous. Caps goalies aren’t noticeably worse during 5-on-5 either, unless you’re able to detect the 3 saves per thousand they haven’t made in the last 10 games.
So defense is mostly unchanged. Even-strength offense rates are the same too, but conversion has cratered — if we all agree to define cratered as “no longer inhumanly high but also not too far below league average.” Before the break, Washington’s PDO (5-on-5 shooting plus saving percentages) was a league-high 104.0. Now it’s a suddenly mortal 101.3, which still has them in the black during even strength.
That leaves us with special teams, which will be a familiar story to what you just read.
|Before Bye||After Bye|
|Power Play||22.2% (37 / 167)||15.6% (5 / 32)|
|Penalty Kill||84.5% (30 / 194)||83.9% (5 / 31)|
The penalty kill is steady (despite a rough night in San Jose), but the power play isn’t performing nearly as well as they did before the bye.
I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. One could even argue the PP is more dangerous now with Stattenkirk; they’ve had 20 percent increases in both scoring chance and expected goal rates. The difference, and this will not shock you at all, is puck luck. Shooting percentage has been halved: from 14.3 to 7.1 percent.
I see it and I know you see it too. Alex Ovechkin isn’t performing like we’re used to seeing him perform. Plus, Andre Burakovsky’s been hurt, Karl Alzner has obviously lost a step, and the team isn’t drawing penalties like they should.
But the underlying numbers for this team don’t justify panic. Some tweaks to the forward lines and their deployments is long overdue, and some radical experimentation is fine as long as the stakes remain low this time of year.
But let’s be clear: this recent rash of losses isn’t the result of the bye week, and the team’s slump isn’t the sign of deeper systemic problems. It’s just some mediocre play that seems much worse because the Caps can’t hit the back of the net. The goals will come.
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