Going down 3-0 in a playoff series is virtually the same thing as elimination. It’s incredibly unlikely that a team in the Washington Capitals’ situation would win four games in a row. And given how badly the Caps are playing, the most likely outcome right now is a 4-0 sweep.
But that description– losing four straight games to an inferior team led by your team’s former coach — still dramatically undersells the scale and the humiliation of this defeat.
The Washington Capitals of the 2020 postseason are a catastrophe.
The 2019-20 Capitals were never a world-beater team, but they weren’t bad either. Below is the rolling average of expected-goal percentage for the Caps’ during the shortened regular season. If fifty percent is even, the Caps were comfortably above that number for most of the season, finishing with a 51.5 percent for 13th best in the league. And although the team had a dip before the trade deadline, I think they were playing some of their best hockey just before the pause.
But the pause happened, and whatever wishful thinking we might have had about how it might help the team has been exposed as a dream. The Caps have been outclassed by the New York Islanders. The graph below has the same scale as the graph above.
That is 34.1 percent, 34.1 percent again, and then 30.6 percent in game three.
Hovering in the low thirties means that, independent of goalie performance, the Islanders are earning about two goals for every one the Caps earn.
Sometimes I worry that, because this information gets expressed as a percentage, it might be harder to intuit. I know that, for me, after several months away from hockey analytics, it’s been hard retraining my brain to process it. So maybe this spectrum below will help. It pins adjectives on some milestone numbers that anchor my thinking.
If you’re 50 percent, you’re even. If you’re 60 percent you’re dominant. If you’re 40 percent, you’re terrible. And then, way way way below terrible, that’s where the 2020 loffs Caps are.
Unless the Caps put forth a monstrous rally in Game Four, this will become the single biggest blowout (when measured by five-on-five expected goals) of the last decade. Here is the top ten.
Super fun fact: the Capitals lost two of those top-ten most lopsided series, both times, heartbreakingly, in seven games. Ha. That sure is fun. I’m having a good time.
One comparison invites another, so here’s a look at the last time the Caps got swept — in 2011 at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In that series, the Caps had the puck more than the Bolts (56.4 percent of the time), but they did not generate the same quality with that volume, as the Caps owned only 47.7 percent of the total expected goals. That was a noble but flawed effort; the Bolts put some hot shooting on Michal Neuvirth and had some well-timed breakaways. That loss stung, and it eventually — months later — cost Bruce Boudreau his job, but it was nothing like this Islanders series.
This series is just punishment.
To me, there is abundant evidence that the Caps’ problems are systemic and widespread (even if I insist that their solutions are nearer than it may seem). For example, every skater save one has been bloodied in this battle.
Yeah. Even in this brain-smootheningly blowout series, Alex Ovechkin is on the good side of the goal line. Way over at the other end is John Carlson, the escape goat of 2020, who has been on ice for six Isles goals and zero Caps goals. The Norris finalist is obviously getting punished a bit by bad percentages, but his on-ice expected goals percentage is 24.6 percent, meaning New York is “earning” three goals for every one the Caps are “earning” when he’s on the ice. That is beyond getting caved-in; that’s The Descent (2005).
For Washington’s forwards, the individual offense has been meager. Here are individual expected goals during five-on-five per game.
Tom Wilson is your overall offensive leader in individual expected goals, though he’s got only one actual goal to his name. He and the rest of the top line (currently Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson) were the only ones who made any offensive noise at all in Game One. But Ovechkin got silenced (0.06 expected goals) in Game Three, as Jakub Vrana tried his damnedest to get out of the doghouse with that 0.23.
Ilya Kovalchuk (0.01 cumulative expected goals) might as well not even lace up.
But this is nitpicking. All of these numbers are miles below where they need to be. Carolina’s Sebastian Aho had 0.45 xG in just 12 minutes of ice time in his Game One against the Bruins. No Caps player comes anywhere near that level of star power right now, not even Ovechkin. Those numbers are paltry by comparison.
This is an all-encompassing disaster of absurd proportions. This is not merely losing. This is getting laughed out of the building, if only there were fans in the building. The Caps should be pelted with rotten fruit for this. They’re playing miserable hockey, frustrated in the two zones they’re being graciously allowed to occupy by the Islanders while sternly forbidden from entering the offensive zone altogether. In addition to maddening mistakes, it’s clear that a few players are either out of shape or not healthy enough to play.
And head coach Todd Reirden is both responsible and accountable for all of it. If defensive coach Reid Cashman were the problem, the opportunity to replace him passed two months ago. If systems were the problem, he’s had 160 games to overhaul them. If motivation were the problem, he is becoming less likely to find the right sequence of words to speak in the right volume with the right intonation to get his players going.
Winning is magic. Winning absolves coaches of their failures and erases the murmurs of “he lost the room.” If the Caps would have squeaked out an undeserved win in Game Three, all of these numbers would have been cast in a different light. That’s as true for Todd Reirden right now as it would have been if for Barry Trotz if the Caps had lost Game Three to the Blue Jackets in 2018. Or if Braden Holtby didn’t save 30 of 31 shots in Minnesota back in November of 2017. We sure did hear a lot of murmurs before that. But then the winning happened, and then suddenly the room was un-lost.
Barring a miracle, that will not happen this time. There’s a range of postseason outcomes for the 2020 Caps, and each point in that range suggests what the front office should do about it. The Caps are probably not going to win the Cup. They’re probably not going to win a single round. They may not win a single game. The scale of their humiliation right now is just one step above spontaneous combustion or a bizarre gardening accident. And that comes with consequences.
We’re looking at the end of something right now. I’m not sure just what that thing is yet, but I can tell this is the end of it.
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