As of Christmas Eve, the Washington Capitals have won their last four games, having gone 9-1-0 over the last ten games.
Way back at the beginning of the month, I wrote:
To [make the playoffs, the Caps would] need to win 72 of their remaining 114 points. That would be a .631 standings-points percentage for the rest of the season, which would be the tenth best record in the league right now.
Are the Capitals about to be a top-ten team?
Short answer: yes. Actually, right now they’re like a top-two team.
We’ve all been seeing the wins, and here at RMNB we’ve been documenting them rapturously, but let’s go one layer deeper. A good predictor of a team’s strength is how much they control the puck and what they do with it. Taking possession of play and generating chances – all the while denying the same from the opponent – can be measured as expected-goals percentage, where 50 percent is average and higher is better.
Washington’s been running up that hill since the start of November.
In October, the Capitals were ranked 25th in the league at expected-goals percentage. In their last ten games, they’re ranked second, behind only Carolina. Carolina is also the only team with a better record over the last ten games (9-0-1).
Washington’s improvement is systemic. From Alex Ovechkin down to Garnet Hathaway, the Capitals are dominating five-on-five play, though I’d call out a handful players who particularly seem to be distinguishing themselves of late: Nic Dowd, Anthony Mantha, Sonny Milano, Conor Sheary, Erik Gustafsson, and Dmitry Orlov.
Sometimes a team improving possession comes from generating more chances or by suppressing opponent chances. Washington’s doing both.
The last few games have been offensive heaters for sure, but there’s reason to believe the team is still a bit unlucky in finishing – they’re in the league’s bottom half in shooting percentage despite generating the eighth most high-danger chances over the last ten games. They should be scoring more goals than they are.
What’s changed to bring about this improvement is a very tough question to answer, at least with any rigor. What I say next I don’t mention to imply is the only factor, but it’s important: we should not overlook strength of schedule.
The dotted red line below shows the average recent standings-points-percentage for Washington’s opponents. Higher means the team has done better this season.
After two months facing opponents who were just about on a 100-point pace (0.60), the Caps have recently been facing teams just outside the playoff bubble, at around a 90-point pace (0.55).
It’ll get even cushier. In January, the Caps will see Columbus three times, Philadelphia twice, plus a roadie at the Coyotes’ Mullett Arena. The top of the season was extraordinarily tough for Washington, and it won’t get near that bad again for any sustained amount of time, though games against Boston, Carolina, and Florida after the all-star break could be trouble.
Nonetheless, the Capitals are currently on pace to finish with 95 points, which could be just enough to make the playoffs. Here’s how leading models place the team’s chances as of Saturday:
(In my opinion, the MoneyPuck model is too volatile. They had the Caps 60 points lower a few weeks ago.)
An idle thought: If the Caps make the playoffs in decent position despite their injury apocalypse, I wonder if Peter Laviolette might sneak into a Jack Adams nomination.
Washington’s next game is on Tuesday. It will be their first game of the season against the New York Rangers, whom they’d likely have to pass to make the playoffs. The Rangers have won eight of their last ten and currently sit fourth in the East. I’m kinda skeptical that they’re for real. I suppose I’ll learn a lot more about their mettle – and Washington’s – that night.
Until then, please have a merry Christmas and happy holiday. I hope you’re safe and with people you love, and I hope that the thought of your preferred hockey team being Actually Good brings you comfort and joy, comfort and joy, oh tidings of comfort and joy.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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p.s. here’s my Christmas-y cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River”, with some “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” at the end:
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