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Score Effects, Appearances and the Washington Capitals

How the Caps have played in various game situations is somewhat concerning... but is it unique?

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
"We seem to play better and more determined hockey when we face a deficit and have to come from behind." - Ted's Take

The above quote is from Caps owner Ted Leonsis, lamenting his team's latest loss, one in which it blew a two-goal lead in a second-consecutive defeat. The sentiment is one we've all no doubt felt with respect to this team - that it often lacks a "killer instinct" when it has an opponent on the proverbial ropes, and that it fails to display any consistent focus or determination until forced to dig itself out of a hole in which they've put themselves.

But there are a couple of important points to be made with respect to this one sentence. First and foremost, just about every team seems to play better and more determined hockey when trailing. Regardless of why that happens, it's a well-documented fact that trailing teams tend to outplay their opponents - it's called "score efffects." To wit, every team in the NHL this year has a higher five-on-five Fenwick percentage (which measures unblocked shots directed towards the net, for and against) when trailing by a goal than by leading by one except Nashville, more than two-thirds have a higher Fenwick percentage when trailing by one than when tied, and every team in the League does better by this metric when trailing by two than when tied.

The Caps, for their part, are at their Fenwick best when down two goals - 54% of unblocked five-on-five shots head towards the opponent's cage in those situations. Cut the Caps' deficit to one goal and that number drops to 50%. Tie the game and it drops further, to 46%, and if you spot the Caps a one-goal lead, it's all the way down to 44% (and if they just scored... look out below).

The second point worth noting from the Leonsis quote is that one-word caveat: seem. It's easy to gloss over, but it's important here. The Caps seem to play better and more determined hockey when trailing... but are they playing better and more determined? It's hard to say and the reason is because there are two teams involved in any game, of course, but there's certainly reason to believe that score effects are more driven by what the team with the lead is suddenly doing differently than by changes their opponents have made. Perhaps the Caps are playing better when trailing, but perhaps their opponents are just letting their foot off the gas and that gives the appearance of the Caps looking more determined (in reality, it's likely some combination of the two).

Anyway, all of this isn't to absolve the Caps for their mental lapses, minimize some impressive comebacks, or to chalk up individual wins and loss to a broad statistical truism, but rather to use these observations to understand what goes on in games at a more general level. And no one would argue against the bigger point here: that the Caps need to be better when games are close.