When most of the hockey world thinks about the Capitals, they think of an offensive juggernaut - and with good cause. The Caps have scored 17% more goals than any other team in the league and sport the NHL's best powerplay by a substantial margin. Not to mention that the goals per game differential between Washington and the second-best team, Vancouver, is bigger than the differential between the league's second best and the league's 13th best.
Given how dominant the Capitals' offense has been this season, it's only natural to assume that their success has been in large part the result of the team's ability to produce goals. A cursory glace at the statistics would seem to confirm this. After all, Washington's among the league's best teams, scores more than anyone else, and is middle-of-the-pack in terms of goals against average. But a more detailed look tells a different story.
Most tellingly, the Capitals are actually a very good defensive team in five-on-five situations, and rank sixth in the NHL in both five-on-five goals allowed and five-on-five goals allowed per minute. They've given up fewer five-on-five goals than the Bruins, Sabres, and Rangers, and fewer goals per minute than the Flames, Canucks, and Avalanche - all teams that have built their seasons around a conservative approach, a top goaltender, or both.
So what gives? In short: the penalty killing unit stinks. We've seen the unit play a frustratingly passive style, watched veterans fail to get the puck out of the defensive zone on a regular basis, and seen the consequences: at 78.8%, the Capitals penalty kill is 25th in the league. But what does that mean in terms of goals against and goal differential? To answer that question, we decided to play around with the numbers a little and see how the Capitals would fare with a mediocre, average, good, and great penalty kill unit (and just for kicks, how things would look if they had the league's best unit):
|PK Rank||PK%||PK GA||Total GA||GA/GP||GA/GP Rank|
[PK - penalty kill; GA - goals against; GP - games played]
The most interesting column might be the one on the far right, showing where the Capitals would rank in goals against average if they were able to improve their penalty kill, but the column to its left is the most important one. After all it's goals for and against - not where a team ranks in relation to other teams - that ultimately determines who wins games.
By getting pulling their penalty kill unit from its current lowly state to simply average, the Capitals could shave better than a tenth of a goal allowed off their per-game total; by going from average to above average the team could lose another tenth. All told, getting from their current state to "very good" the Caps could knock roughly a quarter of a goal off their per game total - a number that mean five or six fewer goals allowed in a deep playoff run.
Frankly there's not really any reason the Caps' penalty killing unit should be so bad especially since, unlike last season, we can't blame things on the team's lack of discipline. This team has the speed, skill, intelligence, and work ethic to be effective playing down a man. The challenge for the coaching staff, even at this late stage of the season, is going to be figuring out how turn that talent in to results. After all, the season's ultimate goal may depend on it.