At 3-0-2, the Washington Capitals are one of three teams in the NHL (along with Chicago and Nashville) without a regulation loss and are pretty much off to as good a start as could have been reasonably hoped for (especially as compared to 1-4-0 and 0-3-1 starts under Adam Oates the last two seasons). They've beaten a couple of good teams, lost in the shootout to a couple more and beaten Florida in that same post-hockey skills competition.
It hasn't been perfect, of course. The first ten minutes against San Jose were ugly, as were the first periods against Boston and New Jersey (though they escaped those two stanzas with better results), so keep an eye on slow starts. And while it's obviously way too early to come to any conclusions - or even feel comfortable that what has happened so far is a good indication of what to expect going forward - let's take a quick look at five games' worth of data in three key facets of the game.
(And yes, minuscule sample size caveats apply... in case that isn't already clear.)
We identified five-on-five play as one of the team's biggest weaknesses (or, perhaps more precisely, question marks) coming into the season. Through five games, it's been one of their biggest strengths. To the numbers (via HockeyAnalysis):
How much of that is Barry Trotz? How much is new personnel? How much is other-than-Adam-Oates? Who knows. Basically, the Caps' play at five-on-five has been a revelation (in close situations as well, though that shrinks the sample even smaller), and they're better across the board with the exception of the team's save percentage (which has a .002 spread that would include the club's seven-year five-on-five save percentage of .924). Just look at that 14% reduction in Corsi-Against and go to your happy place; this team had gone 178 games without putting together a five-game span of limiting opponents to fewer than 30 shots on goal in a game before doing it in Trotz's first five.
Must Read. Seriously. Read This.
Must Read. Seriously. Read This.
Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green are once again forces at five-a-side, Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky are anchoring a surprisingly effective second line with a cool 55.9% CF percentage, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner are humming along... hell, even Brooks Orpik is on the right side of 50% in standard possession metrics. These are the salad days of Caps' five-on-five play (at least post-Bruce Boudreau), even if that shot percentage is likely going to drop some over time.
Having a defensive system (complete with effective controlled breakouts!) and the personnel to execute it has helped possession numbers, primarily via shot volume reduction. This was the blueprint, and what they've built so far looks like a solid foundation.
The Penalty Kill
The Caps' other big team-level weakness last season was the penalty kill. Back to the data:
|Season||PK%||4v5 GA/60||4v5 SA/60||4v5 FA/60||4v5 CA/60||4v5 Sv%||TS/GP|
These are tiny samples. Don't even pay attention to the efficiency or save percentage or times shorthanded. But again, we see huge reductions in shot volume. That's a 34% decrease in on-goal shot rate and a similar reduction in Fenwick-Against. Of note, the Corsi drop isn't nearly as dramatic. Why? In part because Trotz is preaching shot-blocking, which was anathema to Oates. (One thing to note - both power-play goals the Caps have allowed so far have come with the Caps' quartet collapsing but still getting outnumbered and outworked on rebounds down low. Sticks on sticks, boys.)
Hold everything else constant - shorthanded opportunities, shorthanded save percentage - and reduce shots-against and you'll give up fewer goals. That's just simple math.
The Power Play
Still Ovi. Still awesome:
|Season||PP%||5v4 GF/60||5v4 SF/60||5v4 FF/60||5v4 CF/60||5v4 Sh%||PP/GP|
Alex Ovechkin may not be playing as many full two-minute power plays as he did under the previous regime (he's only been on the ice for around 70% of the Caps' total power-play time), but the Caps' second power play unit of Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Joel Ward, Green and Niskanen has already struck twice (the first quintet has three tallies), and might well be a top-10 unit in its own right.
Wins and losses, goals and goals-against aside, if you were to draw up a successful start to Barry Trotz's tenure in D.C., it would (at a very high level) be "improved five-on-five play and penalty killing, but don't dare touch that power play!" And through five games, that's pretty much what it's been, rough patches and all. Now it's time for the Caps to turn these trends into something more permanent.