In advance of the series opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins, we are taking a look at the various components of a familiar foe.
For this piece, we look at how the Pens do at 5-on-5, which is arguably the most important game-state as it should comprise the majority of the series. Special teams may or may not cancel each other out and be a factor, but 5-on-5 play is where the two juggernauts will truly go head-to-head. Below we have the breakdown of how these two teams stack up.
As a Caps fan, it’s understandable to be filled with dread at the thought of yet another second round matchup against the Pens. But when you break down how they did over the course of the season, and where they stand now, there is both good and bad news.
First, as you’ve probably heard, the Pens are a bit banged up right now. Their clear-cut number one defenseman (and difference-maker last year) Kris Letang had surgery and will be out for the duration of the playoffs.
Sullivan says the Penguins are “hopeful” Carl Hagelin will return some time during this series. “I can’t say for sure.” #Pens
— Wes Crosby (@OtherNHLCrosby) April 24, 2017
Additionally, as of earlier this week, Carl Hagelin (another difference-maker last year with 16 points in 24 games) was a maybe. That maybe is now looking more like a “probably,” with him unlikely to miss more than a game or two. This is unfortunate for the Caps, as Hagelin was part of the deadly “HBK Line” that burned them badly last year. Chris Kunitz is also banged up but likely to be ready in time for Game One.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 26, 2017
So the Pens are missing one enormous piece on the back-end, as well as their ideal goaltender, but overall are not quite as depleted as it seemed even as recently as earlier this week.
Before we dive into the team as a whole, we can take a look at how their main missing piece might affect them: Letang. He generally does have a positive possession impact on the Pens (no surprise there), with the team getting a plus-2.7 percent shot attempt boost with Letang on the ice. What is surprising is that the Pens posted a minus-9.4 percent swing in their goals-for percent with their top defensemen on the ice this year. So conventional wisdom would say that missing Letang is a big deal for the Pens (and I do believe that it is), but it’s certainly odd that they gave up goals at a drastically higher rate with him on the ice.
The Pens as a whole had strengths and weaknesses throughout the season. Here is a breakdown of all the key five-on-five score adjusted stats for both teams.
|Shot attempt %||53.4||50.7|
|Expected goals-for %||52.4||52.8|
|Shot attempts for per 60||59.0||59.8|
|Shot attempts against per 60||51.5||58.1|
Washington has generally been the more defensively sound team. The Caps were first in the league at limiting opponent goals. That came from a combination of the third-lowest rate of shot attempts against and the highest team save percentage. The Caps, therefore, had a significantly higher goals-for percent than the Pens, which is arguably the most important stat of all (outscoring the opponent is, after all, the goal).
But the Pens are still an offensive juggernaut. They scored goals at a higher rate than the Caps, had a higher overall goals-per-game, and had a higher rate of expected goals for (a Corsica metric that takes shot quality into account). They also bested the Caps in their rate of scoring chance generation and took shot attempts at about the same rate. There is a reason that the Pens finished second in the NHL, and that reason is that they are deadly on offense. Also, that penalty differential no bueno for the Caps.
While the Pens being a nightmare in transition and on offense hasn’t changed, there are some key contextual differences from last year. Mainly, the Caps were wholly uninspiring after their unanticipated two-week snow and all-star break, while the Pens were the hottest team in the league down the stretch. This year, the Caps came on strong towards the end of the year while the Pens started to struggle. The Caps roared into the playoffs with a 54.0-percent possession over the last 25 games, while the Pens dipped to just 49.5 percent.
It’s hard to make much of the playoffs to-date, but the Pens generally allowed more shots and chances, and did not generate more shots but did generate more chances (and scored more goals). So the Pens were fairly porous on defense and produced fewer, but more dangerous, shots than the Caps (which sounds familiar).
There are a lot of factors here and it’s hard to draw conclusions. A big factor (that we discussed yesterday) is that Marc-Andre Fleury stood tall for the Pens, while Sergei Bobrovsky turned into a marshmallow who couldn’t stop anything. But the underlying numbers suggest that the Pens’ first round wasn’t as dominant as the five-game length would suggest.
Overall, the Caps have to be wary of any team that deploys Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin on the top two lines. They were dominant in round one and they can single-handedly shift an entire series. They have been shut-down in the past (see: Boston 2013) but they have also ripped through teams like a buzzsaw. And with Phil Kessel and the highly productive complimentary pieces of Nick Bonino, Conor Sheary, and Jake Guentzel, the Pens have a plethora of weapons. You’d expect them to score a lot, and they score a lot.
The Pens are also getting crafty, and practicing some of the overlap plays that caused the Caps so much trouble last year, albeit with an inferior defense. One has to assume that the Caps are smart enough to know about this and will be preparing accordingly.
Really interesting. They’re crossing both for the exit and then again for the entry. Lotta options there. And lots for checkers to process https://t.co/QauMk2Hhbv
— Bob Roberts (@BobRbrts) April 26, 2017
All that said, the stats show that the Caps have an edge, or at least in certain areas they do. On paper, the Caps are the more balanced team, and they are no slouches offensively either. Buckle up!
Stats courtesy of Corsica.Hockey.
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