The Caps are set to start their first round series with the Blue Jackets on Thursday night. Given that the Caps finished above the Jackets in the regular season standings and went 3-1-0 against them in head-to-head play, on the surface this may seem like a favorable matchup for the DC team. Let me assure you that this is not the case.
While neither team can be considered a heavy favorite heading into the series, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Jackets are the better 5-on-5 team and, if the Caps are going to win this series, it’s not going to be via a 5-on-5 advantage, unless something drastic changes from the two teams’ performance over the 82 game season, including the four games against each other.
There’s really no plainer way to put this: the Caps are the inferior team at 5-on-5. While the Caps did control more of 5-on-5 play as the season came to a close, the full body of evidence over the course of the season suggests that the Jackets have the upper hand here. Here’s a look at how both teams performed at 5-on-5 in both shot quantity and shot quality.
|Shot attempt %||Scoring chance %|
|Caps||48.3 (23rd)||48.4 (24th)|
|Jackets||51.7 (10th)||51.4 (11th)|
In both shot quantity and quality, the Jackets were the better team.
Further cause for concern here is how much better the Jackets were when the two teams faced off this season. The Jackets controlled 58.2 percent of the shot attempts head-to-head, out-attempting the Caps 272-195. As Dom Lusczyszyn pointed out in his excellent series preview, this difference in head-to-head 5-on-5 play is the largest difference between any of the first round playoff series.
However, Dom’s preview isn’t all doom and gloom for the Caps. You’ll often hear analysts speak to the final 20-25 games of the regular season, as those numbers and results often have better predictive value for playoff performance than the full 82 game season. As Dom points put, the Caps shot attempt percentage rose to 17th in the league over the final 25 games, at 49.4 percent.
One possible bright spot for the Caps here is how the scoring chances in the chart above break down in terms of for and against. The Caps ranked 12th in the league this season in scoring chances for per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. They also have the best goal scorer of this generation as well as plenty of other star power that’s capable of putting up goals.
The issue, my friends, will be at the other end of the rink. The Caps allowed 30.7 scoring chances per 60 minutes this season, 26th in the league. Here’s the Caps shot rates against in heat map form, via Hockey Viz:
This porous defense in front of the Caps net was a large part of what made Braden Holtby look human this season. Luckily for the Caps, they have a guy named Philipp Gruabuer who seemed to thrive amidst the unrelenting barrage of quality shots this season.
Goals saved above average (total, 5v5)
Bobrovsky saved ~34 goals more than a league average goalie would have. That’s incredible.
Grubauer was great in far fewer opportunities. He’s second with ~16 goals saved. That’s 18 (gulp!) behind Bob. pic.twitter.com/ocuIGSt3m0
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 9, 2018
If the Caps are to keep up with the Jackets at 5-on-5, the trends from the previous 82 games will have to be reversed. Or Grubauer will have to stand on his head, as he’s shown he’s capable of during his time in the NHL.
While the outlook at 5-on-5 isn’t great, all is not lost for the Caps. They have one of the league’s best goalies in net for them and a backup who is one of the best playoff goalies in NHL history, should Grubauer falter. Both of these guys are capable of stealing a series. Further, down the other end the Caps have guys like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov who can create goals in a hurry, regardless of the shot differential.
Stats from Natural Stat Trick
Headline image: NHL.com
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.