It is a little known fact...
-- Last season - Adam Oates' first behind the Washington Capitals' bench - the Caps were not a very good possession team through their first 27 games, roughly one-third of a normal season. At 5-on-5 their Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 48.6 percent, their Fenwick-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 48.44 percent, and the shots for versus against was 47.75 percent. Compare that to this season through 27 games (not including Tuesday's game against Carolina)... Corsi-for: 49.85 percent, Fenwick-for: 48.49 percent, shots for/shots against: 46.83 percent.
-- No one keeps score using Corsi or Fenwick, which leaves us with wondering why it is that the Caps are 14-11-2 through 27 games so far this season when they were 11-15-1 through the first 27 games last season, a seven point swing in the standings. Maybe a little of it is goaltending. Last season the Caps had a save percentage at 5-on-5 of .918. This season, .926. The difference amounts to five goals not allowed on 650 5-on-5 shots against through 27 games this season. Does it matter? Last season the Caps were 6-5-1 in one-goal decisions through 27 games; this season: 8-4-2.
-- Maybe it is the power play. The Caps are slightly less efficient through 27 games this season (23.3 percent) than they were last season at this point (24.4 percent). However, the Caps have enjoyed 13 more power play opportunities (103) so far this season than they did through 27 games last season (90). Does it make a difference? Through 27 games last season, the Caps were 3-6-1 in games in which they had four or more power play opportunities. Through 27 games so far this season, Washington is 7-7-1 in games in which they had four or more power play opportunities.
-- How about the penalty kill? At this time last season the Caps were much less efficient (76.5 percent) on the penalty kill than they have been through 27 games this season (83.5 percent). And, the shorthanded situations faced are almost equal - 102 through 27 games last season, 103 so far this season. Here is the odd part, though. Both last year and this, the Caps had 12 games in which they faced four or more shorthanded situations. Last year their record was 2-9-1 in such games at the 27-game mark, this season it is 6-5-1.
-- As poor as the Caps' starts have been so far this season, it merely mirrors their first 27 games of last season. The total first period goals are almost equal (19 at this point last season, 18 this season thus far). As far as getting out of the first period with a lead is concerned, the Caps did it five times in their first 27 games last season, six times so far this season.
-- What the Caps have done marginally better with first period results is win when they took a lead at the first intermission. Last year they were 2-3-0 in games where they led after one period, 4-2-0 so far this season in six first intermission leads.
-- The Caps opened the scoring in 14 of their first 27 games last season, 12 times in 27 games so far this season. In those 14 games in which the Caps scored first last season they had a record of 7-7-0. They have improved on that this year, going 9-3-0 in games in which they scored first.
-- Home cooking has been a bit tastier for the Caps this year compared to last at the one-third mark. In 14 home games last season at this point the Caps were 7-7-0. This year they are 9-6-0 in 15 home games through the first third of the season.
-- One area in which the Caps have improved markedly, this season over last, is in road defense. In 13 road games over their first 27 games last season the Caps allowed 3.46 goals per game. This year, that number has been whittled down to 2.83 goals per game in 12 road contests.
-- High shot volumes have been an issue this season, and they do not compare favorably to last year at this time. Through 27 games last season total shots were 27.7 per game for the Caps, 32.0 against. Through 27 games this season those numbers are 30.2 for the Caps and 35.1 against.
-- There is one other comparison that is quite stark. That involves the deployment and production of Alex Ovechkin last year and this. Looking at Ovechkin's first 27 games last season, his scoring line was 10-12-22. How he got there was, to say the least, interesting. Here we had a player whose entire career had been spent at left wing, and Adam Oates flipped him to the other side. It was not an entirely smooth transition. Of those 10 goals and 12 assists, Ovechkin scored seven of his goals on the power play (generally from his deployment on the left side of the 1-3-1 set-up) and had four of his assists with the man advantage. It is the three goals at even-strength that are noteworthy.
Two of those even strength goals came on a line with Mike Ribeiro and Jason Chimera (February 9th against Florida; February 23rd against New Jersey), the other scored on a line with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle (February 23rd against New Jersey). Ovechkin had not yet settled in with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. The first time that trio would combine on a scoring play in the 2012-2013 season would be in Game 28, 19 seconds into a 5-3 win over Buffalo, Ovechkin with the goal, Backstrom and Johansson with the assists.
Fast forward to this season. At the 27-game mark Ovechkin is 13-1-14 at even strength in 25 games plaed (he missed two to injury). At 5-on-5 he has spent 333:16 of his 380:21 of ice time skating with Backstrom, 260:32 skating with Johansson. He has spent more than 30 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time with only one other forward (Martin Erat). The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Johansson trio is set, productive, and it is among the most reliable elements of the Caps attack this season.
That the Caps are where they are compared to last season at this time - seven standings points better - might be a bit surprising given their possession numbers and shots allowed totals. They are not significantly different in getting out to good starts, although they are doing better when they do. The difference appears to be, so far at least, better special teams (opportunities on the power play, efficiency on the penalty kill) and more efficient goaltending at 5-on-5, plus the stability of the top line that did not exist early last season. As the team heads into the second third of the season, the issue is whether the special teams and goaltending will continue to hide some iffy five-on-five possession numbers.