Thanks to back-to-back wins over the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals now have 100 points and are a lock to make the playoffs. And it turns out that the opponent the Caps are most likely to face in the first round is. . .the Carolina Hurricanes.
Right behind Carolina are Columbus and Pittsburgh.
Given that we’re now transitioning from an 82-game slog to the fever-pitch of the #loffs, I thought it would be useful to revisit the Caps’ four games against Carolina and see what lessons we could take away for a possible playoff series.
Let’s begin with the basics: four wins! The Caps have downed the Canes every time they’ve met this season (and in 15 of 20 games since 2014-15). In this season’s games, the Caps have outscored the Canes during five-on-five with 11 goals to four. That’s domination, but hold on. In those games, Washington controlled 48 percent of the shot attempts, 47 percent of the scoring chances, and 45 percent of the high-danger chances (according to Natural Stat Trick) and 49 percent of the expected goals (according to Evolving Hockey). Those numbers describe a much closer battle than goals would tell.
And that should not surprise us. Despite the losses, the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes are really, really good. Out of every NHL team in the last ten years, Carolina has the second highest shot-on-goal rate, second highest shot-attempt rate, and the single highest overall expected goals rate (using Evolving Hockey’s xG model). Put another way:
The 2018-2019 Carolina Hurricanes are possibly the best offensive team the NHL has seen in over a decade.
— Manny (@mannyelk) December 30, 2018
All that offense makes Carolina wildly fun to watch and dangerous to play against. So let’s go game by game and see exactly how Washington has done it. Below are MoneyPuck’s expected goal timelines (higher is better) and Natural Stat Trick’s shot location heatmaps for each came.
|Game||Expected Goals (Moneypuck)||Heatmap (NST)|
Both Washington and Carolina have got better over the course of the season (especially after roster changes), but even early in the season the Caps seemed to get the best of the Canes. Still, in the two December games, the heatmaps show that the Canes got a lot of action in front of the Caps’ net. (Across all four games, the Caps have 41 high-danger chances to the Canes’ 51.) This isn’t an aberration, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
Game three, just last week, was a tight affair with neither team making mistakes until Ovechkin and Carlson won it with big third period goals. Game four was much the same until the late in the second period when the Canes controlled play well.
I find all that peculiarly comforting, Even with Washington’s defensive shot-quality problem, the Caps have found ways to win against this opponent. But it’s still a risky way to play. Over the whole season, the Caps have let their opponents take 12.9 high-danger chances per hour (second worst in the league). Meanwhile, Carolina’s much-vaunted offense gets 13.9 high-danger chances per hour (highest in the league — by far). That’s a bad combination of Caps defense and Canes offense, and it unsurprisingly has led to a buckwild rate of 15.3 Carolina high-danger chances per hour that poor Braden Holtby (goalie for all four games) has had to face.
Defending the blue line, especially against rush attacks and in-the-crease shots, should be the Caps’ main focus should they draw the Canes in postseason.
Now let’s look at individual players and match-ups. Below are color-coded five-on-five on-ice percentages for the Caps across all four games against the Hurricanes. Goals are way rarer than shot attempts, so please take the columns at right with a grain of salt.
This four-game sample doesn’t really jive with the (much better) full-season data, though there is some insight we can glean. At the extremes, it’s maybe not surprising that a speedy, opportunistic playmaker like Jakub Vrana has been successful against Carolina while a stay-at-home defender like Brooks Orpik has not. More surprising: Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose 2018-19 season has been plagued by defective forechecking and defense, has done just fine in games against Carolina. Actual lineups and head-to-head match-ups can tell us more about this, so I’ve pulled the performances from Washington’s top-nine centers against Carolina’s top-nine forwards. The Canes forwards are at left, and the Caps centers are at top. I’ve excluded goals because they’re so rare within the sample.
Note: I’ve grayed out match-ups for which there hasn’t been much ice time. I don’t think those numbers tell us much.
Again, Evgeny Kuznetsov has done remarkably well in comparison to both his team and the rest of his season, getting more chances than nearly every top-nine forward he faced. Kuznetsov’s ice time has been spread out among the top two Canes lines, and he’s arguably won every match-up.
The same cannot be said for Nicklas Backstrom, who ironically has been much more defensively reliable than Kuznetsov over the season, but has been full of holes against the Canes. This may not be an anomaly. Despite Todd Reirden‘s fiddling with forward lines throughout the season, Backstrom has played all four games on Washington’s nominal top line (in December with Ovechkin and Oshie, and the March games with Ovechkin and Wilson). This could suggest that Carolina’s success against Backstrom may be the product of countering Ovechkin. Ovi scored a hat trick against the Canes in their first meeting, which almost certainly has influenced coaching decisions subsequently. For the record, Carolina coach Rod Brind’amour seems to prefer using defender Jacob Slavin and the Aho line against Ovechkin when he can, and Reirden seems to have tried to get Ovechkin away from Slavin when on home ice.
Last up is Lars Eller, who has mostly faced off against Carolina’s third line of Justin Ferland, Lucas Wallmark, and Jordan Martinook with mixed success. Washington’s own third line has had an up-and-down year, but now with Carl Hagelin, Jakub Vrana, or a rejuvenated Andre Burakovsky as options on one wing, and Brett Connolly’s goal explosion on the other, Eller probably has the advantage going forward.
I think the table above is a bit noisy, and I worry that it muddles the point. So here’s the same data, but just for shot-attempt percentage and just for the teams’ centers.
It’s simplistic, but I think it’s tidier. We can plainly see Carolina’s excellent top line (Niederreiter – Aho – Williams) getting even results against their primary opponent (Kuznetsov) and destroying the Ovechkin-Backstrom pairing. We see Jordan Staal’s line controlling more than 60 percent of play (even if shot quality doesn’t necessarily follow), and we see a huge drop-off once we exit Carolina’s top six, with Wallmark’s line looking a bit vulnerable; he’s surrendered four goals to the Caps in under 50 minutes this season.
Here’s where I betray myself: I really like the Carolina Hurricanes. I like Justin Williams, who has been a dependable two-way forward for basically 15 years. I like him paired with Sebastian Aho, 16 years his junior, and still finding chemistry. I like everything about Dougie Hamilton’s style of play, and how Carolina has been such a great fit for him after Calgary. I like that Teuvo Teravainen got out of Chicago at the right time and got better as a result. I like the Storm Surge, and I like the fact that the team has created more lifelong hockey fans in the last eight months than Don Cherry has in the last eight years.
But maybe the thing I like about the Carolina Hurricanes the most is that the Washington Capitals can beat them.
Headline photo: Gregg Forwerck
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