The Capitals have a 2-0 lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning two road games in convincing fashion. They have been well above .500 in every ten-game stretch since March. Their defense looks stout, their offense productive, their goalie virtually unbeatable. At least two models have them as current favorites to win the Cup.
What the hell happened?
I think the team’s record speaks for itself. They’re two wins away from competing for the Stanley Cup. One level deeper, the team’s process numbers in the postseason look like this:
|51.1||5-on-5 shot-attempt percentage, adjusted|
|52.9||5-on-5 expected goal percentage, adjusted|
|58.7||5-on-5 goal percentage, adjusted|
|32.6||power play conversion percentage|
|76.0||penalty kill percentage|
That describes a pretty darn good team overall, and one well deserving of its current position in the bracket. But I want to underline what a dramatic turnaround this was from the team we saw during the regular season.
Using 5-on-5 numbers, broken down by month and then playoff series, we can see both how bad things were and when the team flipped the switch.
Caveats: The April sample was very small, the Tampa Bay sample smaller still (just two games). Also, a playoff series is not an apples-to-apples comparison against a month of hockey in the regular season.
The dreariness from October until February eventually ended, and then the Caps were startlingly decent down the stretch. In their series with Columbus and Pittsburgh, Washington ceded no ground during even strength. Pittsburgh’s advantage in shot quality (high-danger, expected goals) was mostly restricted to a couple rough periods in Games Two and Five.
Here’s that same information graphically, with a big grain of salt for the Tampa sample:
Unpacking those percentages to their components parts, we can better see where the Caps are improving. These next graphs show Washington’s offensive rates (events per hour) in red and their opponents in gray.
By any metric, we see significant drops in opponent offense after February. At the time, this defensive improvement was hard to see due to Braden Holtby’s swoon and Washington’s relatively soft schedule. Still, in hindsight, it’s clear that the Caps got better. It’s less clear why. Here’s what I’ve got.
Rookie defenseman Madison Bowey hadn’t played in nearly a month when the Caps re-assigned him to Hershey in March. When he did see ice, Bowey’s numbers were about as bad as they get in the NHL. Even with good goaltending, good shooting, and the easiest zone starts among full-time defensemen, the Caps were outscored 24 to 19 during Bowey’s 5-on-5 shifts.
So, once the Caps picked up Michal Kempny from the Blackhawks, it didn’t take long for him to earn a sweater instead of Bowey. Kempny didn’t light the world on fire, but he was a more reliable player with a higher basement.
That dependability gave Barry Trotz confidence in his blue line, something he’d been missing since the end of the 2016-17 regular season. He was able to lower Brooks Orpik’s ice time and give John Carlson more opportunities to score. Both changes worked out well.
With 19 points in 14 games, Alex Ovechkin is carrying the Washington Capitals. But unlike previous playoffs, he’s not alone.
Using Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score, we can see how a handful forwards have increased their contributions between the regular season and now.
Those are massive improvements, built on increased scoring, shot volume, discipline, and solid play at both ends of the ice. Those six players include the entire current top line, plus three more from the middle six.
Lars Eller in particular has stepped into Nick Backstrom‘s shoes and filled them perfectly. Brett Connolly is a divisive player, even among the statistically minded, but he’s scoring (3 points, 2 assists in 14 games) and occupying a much bigger role than he saw last postseason. Jakub Vrana, who was scratched for a game in the first round, has suddenly become indispensable in a top-six role.
Basically, everything is going right for Caps forwards – and at the right time.
And then there’s Braden Holtby. When Holtby started losing starts to Philipp Grubauer in February, it was the right decision. When Trotz chose Grubauer to start Game One and Two of the Columbus series, it was still the right decision.
Holtby has allowed one 5-on-5 goal on the last 40 shots he’s faced. He completely shut down a desperate Blue Jackets’ power play in the first round. Over the whole postseason, he’s prevented about five goals more what we would expect from a league-average goalie facing the same shot quality.
Holtby’s struggles early in the new year were the result of his faltering against the most dangerous shots (76.7 percent, far below average) while facing a league-high volume of that particular kind of shot. Holtby’s save percentage against high-danger shots has recovered (86.4 percent) and he’s facing far fewer of them.
He’s back to his old self. He’s a revelation.
This isn’t anywhere close to a comprehensive explanation of what’s changed. I think we’ve seen new nuances in Jay Beagle‘s deployments, perhaps as a result of steadier matchups. I’ve seen TJ Oshie making productive plays in surprising ways every game. Brooks Orpik has been good, fortunate, and sheltered all at once on his way to seeing a plus-six goal differential during 5-on-5. Bottom-liners like Alex Chiasson have delivered big goals at crucial times. And current head coach Barry Trotz certainly deserves credit for the adjustments he made once his initial lineup plans got wrecked due to injuries and suspensions.
All that stuff matters, but none of it so much as this: the Caps are two wins shy of the Cup Final. They’re the real deal. It’s okay to believe.
Headline photo: Mark LoMoglio
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