For the better part of the first month of the season, the Capitals were playing exceptional hockey but not necessarily getting commensurate results. Their strong play was best evidenced by the team's exceptional puck possession numbers, which were driven largely by how well the team was suppressing their opponents' shots. Unfortunately, poor goaltending was wasting some of that strong play through the start of November.
Things have changed a lot since then... and not for the better. The Caps have actually done a bit of a 180 - goaltending has been the team's greatest strength over the last month-and-a-half (well, at least while Braden Holtby has been in net), but the team's possession numbers have slipped... driven largely by their inability to suppress their opponents' shots as well as they had before. And it's not just opposing shot quantity that has increased. Thanks to the work of the good folks at war-on-ice.com we can examine both the difficulty and volume of the shots Holtby has dealt with both before and after November 5th. (It's worth noting that at this point in time we don't know if these numbers are repeatable, so while we are unsure if they are predictive they are certainly descriptive.)
Holtby Before 11/5/14 (9 games played)
Let's start by looking at the number of high quality looks and the total number of shots that Holtby faced per 60 minutes at five-on-five to start the season:
Say what you will about the Capitals' defensive zone gaffes at the start of the year, the team was doing an excellent job of protecting the net. Holtby was facing a low number of shots overall, and a low number of high-percentage looks in particular. Basically, the Capitals' defense looked incredible. Here's the full distribution of shot attempts that Holtby faced per 60 minutes of five-on-five hockey prior to November 5:
Despite all of the great things the Capitals were doing defensively they were yielding a lot of goals, the result of subpar goaltending. Through the fourth of November, Holtby's adjusted (for shot quality) 5v5 save percentage of 88.9% was the worst in the National Hockey League (minimum 250 minutes). Even forgoing adjustments for shot difficulty, Holtby was the third-worst goaltender in the League in terms of five-a-side save percentage. But, as we said at the time, "On the bright side, we know it's going to get better." Sure enough, it would.
Holtby Since 11/5/14 (15 games played)
In a perfect world, the Caps would have kept limiting the quality and suppressing the quantity of shots-against while their number one netminder rediscovered his historically above-average abilities. That wouldn't be the case, however. Perhaps the Capitals were simply outperforming their true defensive skill to start the year (and they definitely missed possession-stud Mike Green for half of this second stretch), but since the beginning of November the defense has been yielding more shots... and more from high percentage areas. A lot more. Of both.
The only goaltenders who have faced more and higher quality shots per sixty minutes than Holtby since November 5 are old friend Michal Neuvirth, Jhonas Enroth, Jonathan Bernier and Robin Lehner (Anton Khudobin is facing fewer shots overall, but more frequent high quality looks). Those goalies play for Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa, and Carolina, a group of teams with whom the Capitals would not want to be associated, defensively. Here's the full shot breakdown for Holtby:
That's a lot more shots, a lot more coming from high-percentage areas and a larger percentage of shots faced coming from the danger zone. But despite all of these unfavorable upticks, Holtby has excelled. His adjusted save percentage of 93.48% is the 10th best in the League over this span. So while defense has gotten much worse, Holtby has improved.
Up to this point we have not gone into too much depth about just how dangerous/harmless shots are from each respective category (low, medium, and high). Here are the League-wide shooting percentages from each location since the start of last season:
|Scoring Area||League-Wide Shooting Percentage|
The differences between the three areas are pretty large and surprisingly uniform. Using these shooting percentages we can estimate the number of goals the Capitals should yield per 48 minutes of 5v5 play both before and after November 5 (roughly the amount of time the Caps spend at five-on-five during each game):
|Scoring Area||10/1/14-11/4/14 (Shots/48)||11/5/14-12/15/14 (Shots/48)||Est. ESG/48 - Old||Est. ESG/48 - New|
ESG here is even-strength goals-against, so, for example, we'd have expected (based on the average shooting percentages above) that the Caps' goalie would have allowed 0.80 goals per 48 minutes at five-on-five from high-percentage areas based on the October shot rate, but 1.08 based on the November/December rate. Overall, based on the increases in shot volume and where the shots came from, we'd expect an increase from 1.52 to 1.88 even-strength goals "per game" over the two time periods. That's roughly a 23.7% increase.
How did expectations and reality differ? Let's quickly compare Holtby's actual performance to his estimated goals-against rates over the two different time periods:
|Holtby v Estimate||Estimate - ESG/48||Holtby- ESG/48|
|First Time Period||1.52||2.13|
|Second Time Period||1.88||1.58|
So while Holtby did truly struggle to start the season, his play since the beginning of November has been nothing short of exceptional. If Holtby regresses to a League-average goaltender over the remainder of the season (not that we expect it, but he'll likely regress some) and the Caps continue to yield shots at the rate and type that they have been for the past month-and-a-half, they'll yield approximately 19 more goals the rest of the way than they would with the same goaltending and their previous shot-suppression stylings. Those 19 extra goals-against might not sound like much, but it should - that equates to a loss of approximately six standings points.
If the Capitals seriously consider themselves a Cup competitor, they must improve their team defense; a team can only rely on their goaltender killing it for so long. On the plus side, for nearly a month, they showed they can do it. But don't let your eyes fool you - team defense is definitely something to watch out for moving forward.