The Washington Capitals defeated the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, a 5-2 victory over the worst team in hockey that did nothing to improve Washington’s long-term outlook. Since the beginning of January, the Capitals have looked merely mediocre. They’ve lost half of their last ten games, seen their special teams (both of them) drop to the league’s basement, and have seen their ability to drive play erode.
So are the Caps bad now?
The Caps are still a relative lock for the playoffs; HockeyViz has them at about 90 percent. But with so many weaknesses in their game, the likelihood of a first-round exit seems greater. A loss in the first round would be Washington’s fourth in a row.
First, an establishment of the facts: since the new year Washington has become drastically worse during five-on-five play.
At first I dismissed these struggles as a secondary artifact of the team’s unfortunate slump in shooting percentage. They were, I thought, just gripping the stick too tight.
That drop in shooting percentage from such haughty heights compounded Washington’s more modest drop in the standings, but even as goals have turned back upwards in the last week Washington has remained dreary at even-strength possession. Getting outshot 49 attempts to 28 by the Montreal Canadiens was a sterling example of how bad it has gotten. The Caps do not control games lately.
Sometimes when a team starts playing worse, you can find a single line or even a single player that seems to be struggling the most. With the Capitals, that doesn’t seem to be the case. All four of the team’s big centers have seen their on-ice shot-attempt percentages plummet since the new year.
In the graph above, fifty percent means the Caps generate the same amount of offense as their opponents, and above 50 means the Caps are controlling most of play. Note the downturn across all four centers starting around the start of the new year. For Nic Dowd and Lars Eller, there’s been about a 10-point drop. That’s like going from being a Cup contender to a team lucky to make the playoffs.
I’m discouraged that all centers are playing worse, which suggests that the reason for the drop isn’t the raft of injuries and infections, which would presumably impact some lines more than others.
Compounding matters is Washington’s schedule. February has a couple tough games, especially the month’s bookends with Pittsburgh and Toronto, but there are a lot of soft targets here. In the table below, Opp-Points% is the percentage of standings points the opponent team has recorded to date. Opp-SA% is the percentage of shot attempts the opponent has possessed over the whole season. At right is the share of shot attempts Washington owned by Washington in that particular game.
The Caps won the Pittsburgh game with shooting percentages. They’ve been massively outshot all month, with the exception of a 54 percenter against Columbus, who typically spot their opponents 53 percent anyway. If not for Samsonov and the Dowd line, Washington would have been blown out of the la grange in Montreal.
These are gimme games. Washington should be piling up goals, padding individual stats, and controlling play. Instead, they’re depending on luck to win and otherwise getting steamrolled.
The Capitals have excuses. They’ve had big absences among their top-six forwards; only Vegas has missed more. But every team in the NHL has had roster trouble this season, and not every team is floundering against very bad opponents.
I have to admit my confidence in the Caps is shaken right now. Having a midseason slump isn’t remarkable, but the team has not demonstrated a faculty for making appropriate adjustments. Their proposed solution to the power play’s ongoing misery was swapping out their best zone-entry forward, Evgeny Kuznetsov, for Eller. That experiment lasted four minutes. The coaching staff’s ongoing malevolence towards Connor McMichael baffles me. The front office’s goalie tandem experiment has been a manifest failure for more than a year, but they still haven’t pulled the chute.
But there sure are a lot of excuses.
On Sunday, the Capitals will host the Ottawa Senators for a matinee game. The Senators are a bad hockey team. The Capitals should be able to stomp them. That would feel nice, but I need more if I’m going to be confident in their leadership or enthusiastic for the team’s post-season prospects.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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