Sittin' at the End of the (Capitals) Bar

Mike Carlson

Peerless is at the end of the bar musing about two-goal leads and what it has meant -- and might mean -- for the Washington Capitals this season.

The two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey."

This is a phrase written or thought of by countless hockey bloggers and fans over the course of a National Hockey League season, written or uttered more frequently when the club about which they write or for which they cheer give up that two-goal lead.

Does it have the ring of truth? No, at least based on this review performed in 2001 by the folks at puckscene.com.

However, Caps fans being in a state of perpetual grief over every lead lost, game blown, or standings point tossed aside, one wonders whether the "two-goal rule" applies as the most dangerous lead for Caps success.

So far in the 2013-2014 season Washington is 27-23-9 through 59 games. In 39 of those games the Caps, their opponent, or both clubs held at least one two-goal lead. At the highest level - having any two-goal lead at any point in the game - such a lead is a reliable predictor of a winner. It is especially true for when the Caps hold at least one two-goal lead in a game. In 18 instances in which they, and only they, held such a lead Washington is 15-1-2 so far this season, their only loss in regulation coming against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 37 on December 23rd when the Ducks scored three straight goals after the Caps scored the game's first two goals in a 3-2 Anaheim win.

On the other side, opponents held at least a two-goal lead in 19 games without the Caps holding one. In those games the Caps are 4-15-0. Here is the odd part about that record. Every single win came in the trick-shot competition:

  • Game 2, October 3, Calgary at Washington. Calgary took a 2-0 lead mid-way through the first period, a lead that would become 4-1 mid-way through the second frame. The Caps would claw back to a 4-3 deficit before the second period was out, scored another in the third period, then won in the Gimmick, 5-4, when Mikhail Grabovski and Alex Ovechkin scored goals, and Michal Neuvirth (in relief of starter Braden Holtby) blanked the Flames.
  • Game 20, November 15, Washington at Detroit. The Caps scored first, but the Red Wings scored the next three goals to take a 3-1 lead into the second intermission. The Caps scored twice in the third period on goals by Alex Ovechkin and Michael Latta (his first in the NHL) to tie the game. The Caps won it, 4-3, in the Gimmick when Nicklas Backstrom scored the only goal in the third round.
  • Game 31, December 10, Tampa Bay at Washington. Tampa Bay jumped on the Caps early, building a 2-0 lead less than 11 minutes into the game and adding a goal before the Caps got on the board late in the first period for a 3-1 Lightning lead. The Caps scored on a power play early in the second period, but Tampa restored their two-goal lead at 4-2 in the 13th minute of the period. The Caps closed the period fast, though, getting two goals from Alex Ovechkin 2:10 apart, both on power plays, to tie the game. Tampa Bay scored to take the lead 8:36 into the third period, but Ovechkin scored his fourth of the game with 32.4 seconds left in regulation to send the game to extra time. After a scoreless overtime, the Caps won it, 6-5, outscoring the Lightning 3-2 in the freestyle competition, Troy Brouwer getting the clincher for the Caps.
  • Game 33, December 15, Philadelphia at Washington. The Caps got off to a good start with a Marcus Johansson power play goal 11:17 into the first period against the Flyers. However, Claude Giroux scored with just 54 seconds left in the first period to send the teams off at the first intermission tied, 1-1. The late goal provided momentum for the Flyers, who scored once in the second period, then twice in the third to build a 4-1 lead with 16:28 left in regulation. Washington got back to within a goal on scores by Mike Green and Joel Ward. Then, just as they did against Tampa Bay just five days earlier, the Caps scored the game-tying goal in the final minute. It was Alex Ovechkin who scored with 48 seconds left to tie the game. The teams exchanged goals in the trick shot phase, but Nicklas Backstrom got the game-winner for the Caps in a 5-4 decision.

That would be the last comeback win so far this season when the Caps fell behind by two-goals. They are 0-7-0 in such games since their win over Philadelphia in December.

There are also two games this season in which both the Caps and their opponents held two-goal leads. In both games the Caps were first out to a two-goal lead; in both the opponents were last to a two-goal lead. He who holds the two-goal lead last, wins in these situations, at least in the two instances involving the Caps:

  • Game 25, November 27, Ottawa at Washington. The Caps and Senators exchanged goals 78 seconds apart in the first period, but the Caps scored two more within 85 seconds of Ottawa's game-tying goal. The Caps carried that 3-1 lead into the locker room at the first intermission. If only the game ended there. Ottawa had the only two goals of the second period to tie the game, then took a 4-3 lead early in the third period. After John Carlson tied it for the Caps with just 3:27 left to give fans the hope that the game would go to overtime, the Senators won it on a goal by Zach Smith with 2:13 left, then added an empty net goal by Bobby Ryan with 13 seconds left for the final two-goal, 6-4 margin.
  • Game 42, January 4, Washington at Minnesota. Washington took a 2-0 lead in the first period when Marcus Johansson and Mike Green scored just 13 seconds apart. Maybe it was too easy. The Wild stopped the bleeding and got out of the period down by just that two-goal margin. In the second period Minnesota scored three times in the space of 5:22 to take a 3-2 lead. Green got his second of the game in the 14th minute of the period to tie the game, but Minnesota got that one back when Jason Zucker scored with less than three minutes remaining in the period. Ryan Suter closed out the scoring with a goal - sealing his first career hat trick and the first by a Wild defenseman in team history - 7:37 into the third period for the final 5-3, two-goal margin. Minnesota recorded their five goals on just 11 shots, the first team in NHL history since such things were recorded (according to Elias Sports Bureau) to score than many goals on that few shots.

First periods have had their own role in the Caps two-goal lead/deficit history this season. For example, the Caps did not record their first two-goal lead in a first period until Game 21, when they scored the first two goals (which would become a 3-0 lead in the period) against the St. Louis Blues on their way to a 4-1 win.

Overall the Caps have held two-goal leads in the first period eight times (all coming in their last 39 games) and have a 5-2-1 record, including the November 27th game against Ottawa when they held a two-goal lead, then lost by a two-goal margin.

On the other side opponents took two-goal leads in the first period in two of the Caps first five games, three of their first 11 contests. Calgary did it twice in that span, the Caps splitting the decisions. Overall, the Caps have allowed opponents to build two goal leads in the first period nine times so far this season and have a 2-7-0 record in those games. Perhaps most distressing for Caps fans, especially given the Caps' precarious posture in the playoff race, is that they have allowed two-goal leads to opponents three times in their last 12 games going into the Olympic break, all in Metropolitan Division games, twice to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Speaking of the division, the Caps are 7-8-1 in divisional games in which one or the other team has held a two-goal lead. Washington is 6-0-1 in which they held a two-goal lead at any point in the game, 1-8-0 in games where the opponent held such a lead. In their recent seven-game losing streak against Metro Division opponents the Caps allowed opponents two goal leads in four of the games and lost all four, three by multi-goal margins.

Let's look at this in a slightly different way. Graphically, one can see the trend of effects of two-goal leads, for and against:

2g_medium

The progress of games, left to right, in this graph paint something of a disturbing picture. Although the frequency of comebacks is low, you don't want to see the Caps sliding from comebacks from two-goal deficits early in the season to losses after two goal leads as the season wears on. What the Caps were able to do (comeback after down a pair of goals) and avoid (losing when ahead by two) has been, if not turned completely on its head, twisted askew. The elapsed time factor in games aligns with the intuitive notion that two goal leads are overcome late (red circles) while two goal leads blown are achieved early in contests. Overall, it is not the prettiest of pictures.

In the end, it is six of one, half a dozen of the other for the Caps. In games in which one or the other team has taken a two-goal lead, the Caps have averaged 1.03 standings points per game (19-18-2 in 39 games). In those games in which neither team took such a lead the Caps have averaged 1.15 standings points per game (8-5-7 in 20 games). It does not seem to have mattered much. But it does matter who takes those leads, because unlike the popular myth, two-goal leads have not been "the most dangerous lead in hockey," at least as it applies to the Washington Capitals this season. Quite the opposite. As if to confirm common sense, a two-goal lead taken by either the Caps or their opponent is a reliable indicator of who wins and who loses.

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