The Washington Capitals have drawn as their first-round opponent maybe the most compelling and misunderstood team in the NHL. Returning to the postseason for the first time in a decade, the Carolina Hurricanes are a calculating, analytically-driven team who has also been irrepressibly fun to watch. They’re a mishmash of veterans and rookies, of stalwarts and castoffs — who have all somehow found synergy and success playing next to each other.
Also, they’re a very real threat to the Washington Capitals.
I’ve been eyeballing this matchup ever since the Caps and Canes ended their four-game regular-season series last month. Even though Washington won all four games, Carolina proved themselves dangerous each time. It took some very favorable shooting and saving percentages in those games for the Caps to earn the sweep.
With that in mind, let’s take a longer look at how these teams match up with one another during even strength, and how this series might look.
This is an extension of multi-year trends for both teams. Carolina has long been able to drive play, but they’ve struggled to convert that possession dominance into actual goal-scoring. That’s actually changed a bit this season as the Brind’Amour version of the team has seen much better shooting percentages than the old Bill Peters-coached team, especially since they acquired Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild in January.
Below are HockeyViz heatmaps that show where each team takes its shot attempts when on offense. Red means more than league average, blue means below league average.
Carolina’s offense is a constant funnel towards the net. As I mentioned last month, they create a higher rate of quality chances than any team in the current era. Meanwhile, the Caps have a two-fold problem: they don’t attack very often, and their attacks are typically less dangerous.
This seems like an invitation to get into a shot-quality discussion. We can’t do that in full right now, but we can acknowledge two truths:
That’s mostly been a function of Washington having elite-level finishing and Carolina just sorta not — until recently at least. In this series the Caps will have to hope to keep their shooting percentages high, but more importantly they need to figure out how to slow down Carolina’s blitz.
When it comes to suppressing their opponents’ offense, the Caps look pretty bad. But the season-long summary data hides contours that show significant progress. Here’s a timeline of opponent rates over the whole season.
The Caps slowed down opponents dramatically after the deadline, making them the most improved team in the league in that stretch. The Michal Kempny injury and a couple iffy games (e.g. Montreal) late in the season should worry us, but I think it’s safe to say the Caps are not actually a bottom-five team defensively. Still, in my opinion, improving neutral-zone play and backchecking among the top six should be the team’s single biggest concern — especially against a fast, transition-happy team like Carolina.
I’d consider Carolina a mediocre team without the puck, but that’s not an insult. Their defensive strength actually comes from not having to play defense much because they’re so often on attack. (This was a hallmark of the Caps from 2008 to 2011, and I appreciate it a great deal.)
Washington’s weakness is down low: the big red blob in front of Braden Holtby indicating lots of shots from that location. But being weak against high-danger shots should not necessarily be considered the same thing as defenders failing to clear the crease. With the 2018-19 Caps in particular, we’ve seen that many high-danger chances are actually the result of successful rush attacks made possible by Washington’s poor neutral-zone play or turnovers high in the offensive zone. If it’s possible for the team to “flip a switch” and all of sudden be a lot more conscientious in those high-risk situations, that sure would be nice.
Putting offense and defense together, there is a stark contrast between these teams.
Carolina is a possession dynamo with excellent puck movement and a tenacious shooting instinct. They’ve got a lot going for them, but they don’t have Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Carlson — game-breaking superstars whose ability to score exceeds human reason. They (and goalie Braden Holtby) are the reason why the Caps are ranked second in goals-for percentage despite being middle-of-the-pack or worse at every process stat. And the absence of many comparable players on the Canes may be why that team’s scoring and saving lag behind their truly excellent process statistics.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Canes’ scoring personnel. They’ve got some real studs, so let’s look at them now.
The Canes have four 20-goal scorers, two on each of their top two forward lines. The leading scorer is 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who shares top-line time with 37-year-old ex-Cap Justin Williams. But the second line might be even more dangerous, with 18-year-old rookie Andrei Svechnikov making a 20-goal NHL debut. Here are the underlying numbers for that fearsome top six.
The team doesn’t even drop off much after that, with third liners Michael Ferland and Jordan Martinook also among the team’s top scorers, and there’s always defender Dougie Hamilton, who was one of two perfect-fit trades for the Canes this season. (The other being Niederreiter.)
There are a lot of weapons in this lineup. Carolina simply cannot be discounted as a one- or two-line team. Todd Reirden’s match-up decisions and adjustments will be tough, and they have a profound impact on how this series shakes out.
As I mentioned last month, Washington did a lot right in their four wins over Carolina. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that those wins were also made possible by 12.2 percent shooting and 95.5 percent saving during five-on-five play. How much of that is random chance and how much of it is a durable characteristic of the superstar Washington Capitals is an important debate, and it will determine who will win this series.
(Caps in six, by the way.)
Headline photo: Gregg Forwerck
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