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A reality check about our minds' capacity to process everything it might see

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

"Turnover-prone Capitals fall to Coyotes for fourth straight loss, 6-5"

That was the Washington Post headline following the Caps' loss to Arizona back on November 2, after Barry Trotz's squad had blown a two-goal lead and had looked bad doing it. Making matters worse, the loss was the fourth in a row for the Caps, and, making matters uglier, Washington had held a lead at some point after the first period in each of them before ultimately succumbing to defeat in regulation.

Trotz, understandably, was frustrated with his team and let 'em have it in his postgame presser:

"That behavior has to change, or we have to change people. It’s plain and simple," Trotz said. "Ice time, look at different people in different situations. To me it’s absolutely unacceptable. They have to fix their behavior. It’s my job to fix the behavior. I don’t like the behavior. If they’re not going to fix it internally, individually, then I’ll make sure I fix it."

Part of "that behavior," no doubt, was a litany of mind-numbing turnovers and mental mistakes or, as we like to call them around here, soul-crushing boners (SCBs for short)... and there have been a lot of them. Want an example? No? Too bad:

Turnover-prone Capitals indeed.

The losing streak would hit five games with a loss to Calgary, but since then it's been relatively smooth sailing for the Caps, standings-wise, as they've gone 10-5-2 in the 17 games since, a 106-point 82-game pace.

Must've cleaned up their game and eliminated those SCBs, eh?

Well, not exactly. In fact, the Caps have actually seen a small uptick in turnovers since then. With the caveat that turnovers (giveaways and takeaways) are notoriously poorly kept statistics in the NHL, we can still take a look at how the Caps managed the puck for their first dozen games and the next 16 and reach some general conclusions about what we think our eyes have seen and what's actually been going on.

We (and by "we," I mean Muneeb) pulled data on the Caps' five-on-five giveaways (GvA) and opponent takeaways (OTkA) and shots-against (SA) taken within five seconds of those turnovers (TO). Here's the first piece of the puzzle:

GvA/Game OTkA/Game TO/Game SA/Game Avg. SA Distance
Games 1-12 6.6 5.0 11.6 1.80 37.3
Games 13-28 6.7 7.3 14.0 1.92 34.2

Giveaways ("Oops, I dropped my wallet on the sidewalk!") are the same, but opponent takeaways ("Hey, someone picked my pocket!") are up. The shots generated off those turnovers are ever-so-slightly up, and the average distance of those shots is closer to the Caps' net. For what it's worth, here are the numbers during the losing streak:

GvA/Game OTkA/Game TO/Game SA/Game Avg. SA Distance
Games 8-12 6.8 7.2 14.0 2.20 40.5

More in line with what's come since, with 11 shots on goal coming within five seconds of a Caps turnover during that five-game span.

So why did it feel like the Caps were coughing up the puck with so much more frequency during those first 12 games and during the losing streak in particular? Let's add a column to our table:

GvA/Game OTkA/Game TO/Game SA/Game Avg. SA Distance TO Sv%
Games 1-12 6.6 5.0 11.6 1.80 37.3 .667
Games 8-12 6.8 7.2 14.0 2.20 40.5 .455
Games 13-28 6.7 7.3 14.0 1.92 34.2 .840

Goaltending. Over a small sample of shots, the Caps simply weren't getting saves. In games 1-12, the Caps allowed six five-on-five goals off of turnovers (as we've defined them), all of them coming in games 8-12; in games 13-28, they allowed four. One goal every two games for the first dozen (and six during the five-game losing streak) and one every four games since.

The reality is that the Caps weren't turning pucks over at an absurdly high rate early on, and they're not protecting the puck particularly well now. The difference is between the pipes. Here are some points of reference to further hammer home those points (take some of these with a grain of salt, given individual arena scorer bias and whatnot):

GvA/Game OTkA/Game TO/Game SA/Game Avg. SA Distance TO Sv%
NHL Averages, 2013-14 6.3 5.3 11.6 1.70 32.1 .855
NHL Highs, 2013-14 9.3 (EDM) 6.7 (COL) 15.4 (EDM) 2.60 (OTT) 36.2 (NSH) .900 (CBJ)
NHL Lows, 2013-14 3.3 (STL) 3.9 (MTL) 8.2 (STL) 1.26 (PHX) 28.5 (NYR) .767 (PHX)
Capitals, 2013-14 6.2 5.7 11.9 1.93 35.9 .880

One of the most memorable post (of many memorable posts) on Tyler Dellow's old mc79hockey blog opened with a reality check about our minds' capacity to process everything it might see:

The Big Mistake

The big mistake in this case is a turnover that immediately leads to a goal. (Another good example that we've already seen early in the Trotz Era is the focus on defensive-zone face-off losses winding up in the back of the Caps' net.)

It's one thing for us fans to let the big mistake color how we see the game, but when coaches tailor their strategies in response to what amount to tiny results-based samples that ignore the underlying processes, it can be particularly dangerous. Could a few giveaways that ended up in the back of the Caps' net over a small handful of games have led to tactical changes ("Make the safe play and chip it out") that have resulted in a drastic increase in shots-against? Maybe. The timing sure is interesting.

Regardless, goaltending can mask a lot of problems or make it seem like some exist that really don't. Which isn't to say that the Caps weren't turning the puck over and that their mental focus was where it needed to be, but rather to say that there was no need to overreact. And that, for lack of a better word, is the big takeaway here.