When the Washington Capitals gave up eight power-play goals in just 12 times shorthanded over a recent four-game span, it dropped the team from 13th in the League in penalty-killing efficiency to 29th. A quartet of successful kills later, they've inched up a notch (and now slot in right in the middle of a pack of Metro Division brethren that are rounding out the League's bottom-five), but the big question is whether that eight-spot was a bump in the road or indicative of a bigger problem.
The answer is that it actually might not matter all that much.
More on that in a minute, but first the good news - the Caps' shorthanded shot-rate-against has come way down, both from last season's historically abysmal kill and within the current campaign. Here's what they've done this year (data via war-on-ice.com):
And here's how the four-on-five numbers stack up against last year's putrid marks (data via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com):
Shots are getting through to Caps goalies roughly 28% less frequently than they were a year ago. The Caps are in the middle of the pack in terms of Fenwick- and Corsi-Against rates and top-10 in Shots-Against rate, which is one heck of an improvement over last season, when they ranked dead last in all three.
And lower rates of shots-against means lower rates of goals-against, right? Well... in theory. But that hasn't been the case so far this year, as the Caps have actually yielded four-on-five goals at a much higher rate - 8.36 per sixty this year (ranking them 27th), up from last season's 6.14 (17th). The obvious driver there is a huge drop-off in save percentage, from .904 (3rd overall) to .819 (you guessed it, dead last). Put another way, if the Caps were posting the same 4v5 save percentage this year as last, they'd have only yielded nine of those goals instead of 17, which would have them in the top-five in the League in penalty kill efficiency.
The good news there (in the sense that being almost certainly unsustainably bad is "good") is that an .819 save percentage is lower than any team in the seven-season BtN Era (the 2008-09 Leafs posted an .823 mark), and the Caps' .807 all-shorthanded save percentage is far lower than any team has posted over a full season over the 11 years for which that data is available (those same Leafs finished at .824). The Caps' shorthanded save percentage will improve.
So why wouldn't any of this - improved shot suppression, decreased save percentages - matter all that much? Obviously that's a bit of an exaggeration, but there's only one way a single rough patch drops a team 16 spots in the rankings, and that's when the samples are tiny. And for this Caps team, the early-season small sample has been made even smaller thanks to something that this team has been lacking over the past handful of years: discipline, both individually and within a system. The Caps are still (yes, still) somewhere on the learning curve as they implement a fifth system under a fourth coach in the last five years or so, but one dramatic (and under-discussed) result so far has been a drastic reduction in penalties taken. To wit, the Caps are averaging just 2.96 times shorthanded per game so far, down half an opportunity per game from last year's 3.46 and a mark that would shatter the franchise record if they can keep it up:
The Caps are taking penalties at five-on-five at the ninth-lowest rate in the League (3.34 per sixty), which owes primarily to generally good possession numbers and playing within a more structured system. But don't discount the part that individual accountability also has contributed to the reduction - discipline has been a hallmark of Barry Trotz's teams, as Nashville had the fourth-fewest times-shorthanded last year, third-fewest the year before, and so on, finishing top-seven in each of the past five season and taking the fourth-fewest five-on-five penalties since the 2004-05 lockout.
In the past, we've talked plenty about how special teams efficiency is just one piece of a bigger picture, that without factoring in opportunities, a ton of critical context is lost - a penalty kill that's only successful 75% of the time for a team that goes shorthanded three times per night isn't giving up as many goals as one that's working at 80% for a team that's shorthanded four times per night. And while the Caps' penalty kill sorts things out (they seem to have the shot-suppression part down), it's good to know that the team isn't leaning on the unit too much. After all, on the heels of giving up three power-play goals in back-to-back games to Toronto and Vancouver just over a week ago, the Caps' penalty kill had a spotless night against Carolina in the easiest way possible... they never had to take the ice.