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Capitals Measuring Up Well in Measuring-Stick Games

Some teams fold at the feet of a superior opponent. The Washington Capitals are not one of those teams.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Things are good for the Washington Capitals right now. December 2014 was one of their most successful months in recent memory. Then they opened the new year with a fantastic win against the NHL's best team in the Chicago Blackhawks, which they did in front of the entire hockey world.

And that prompted a sentiment pretty well summarized in this tweet:

It makes sense that the thought "These guys might actually be pretty money" would crop up right about now, for both Weagle-wearing homers and unbiased spectators alike. Prior to Sunday's win over Florida, the Caps had earned five of six points against the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, and Blackhawks, who are three of the League's top seven teams. Add in a pair of wins over the League's fifth-best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in early December and a 10-1-3 record overall since December 3 and, well, you get the point. The Caps are hot.

It's easy to point to those five games as evidence that the Caps can go toe-to-toe with the world-beaters. But how well have the Caps truly fared against strong competition?

Well, if you look at their record against teams that are currently in position to make the playoffs, there's plenty of room for improvement. Washington has gone 6-7-4 in these such games. While this isn't the prettiest record, the .470 points percentage at least means they're somewhat productive.

It's also worth noting that the Caps are arguably a better team now than they were, say, for the first month of the season, and inarguably have gotten better results since then. In fact, the Caps didn't get their first win against a team who is today in playoff position until a 3-2 victory over Chicago on November 7th. Prior to that, they went 0-3-2 in such games. Since that early November win in Chicago, the Caps have gone 6-4-3 against teams slotted for the playoffs, a .576 points percentage. (For a point of reference, last year's Adam Oates-coached squad put up a point percentage of .478 (19-21-6) against playoff teams.)

With the season not yet half completed, there's still a lot of hockey to be played against good competition — including the Winter Classic, the Caps will play six games against current playoff teams in January (including two this week against the Maple Leafs and Red Wings), and then nine more in February, when they go on a brutal road trip through San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Taking care of business against teams they "should" defeat and continuing to pick up points in tougher match-ups is a recipe for success. But how do we know which teams are which? Well, possession is as good an indicator of team quality as anything else we have, and to drive the point home, let's take a look at how well current playoff teams possess the puck.

On this graph, current playoff teams are in red, the Caps are in yellow. Basically, the further to the left a team is, the better the team, theoretically.

Teams like Chicago, Tampa, L.A., and the Islanders are the class of the NHL. A team like Toronto is similar to a few Caps' teams of years past in that they're slotted for the postseason despite pretty poor play at even strength (look for them to fade as their luck runs out). The Minnesota Wild, the Boston Bruins, and the Florida Panthers have probably played well enough to be playoff teams, but today are not.

Here's a good way to visualize the relationship between possession and contendership, which I first saw done by Peter Hassett in one of his Sunday Snapshots (a great weekly serial, which all Caps fans would do well to read with regularity).

These are the averaged Corsi-For percentages for non-playoff teams versus playoff teams. The four percentage-point difference is stark, as you can see. And check it out — the Caps are pretty much just as good a possession team as your average NHL playoff team.

But are the Caps aren't just fattening up on the League's weak, getting nice and plump for the real predators to feast on?

Thanks to my peer and all around smart-dude Adam Stringham, we can look into that. Adam has tracked score adjusted Corsi For percentages for every game, and put them into a highly-intuitive chart. (Take a moment to go follow Adam on Twitter. It's worth it. I'll wait. Tons more great stuff where this came from.)

In 17 games against playoff teams, the Caps won the possession battle in eight, lost it in eight, and broke dead even with Tampa Bay on December 9th.

That's validation of this team's abilities. Chicago, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Islanders are the League's five-best Corsi-close teams. The Caps have played 9 total games against these teams. One of those was the possession-deadlock with Tampa (a game taken by the Capitals, 5-3); the other eight they split down the middle, winning possession battles in four of them.

Casting a shadow over the sunshine and rainbows for a moment, it's also worth noting that while the Caps can beat just about anyone, they can also lose to anyone (that's the nature of the League these days), and are liable to get out-possessed by some pretty cruddy teams. See games above against New Jersey (three times), Arizona (twice), Colombus and Toronto as proof.

It goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway) that possession isn't the be-all end-all of team quality — and other factors, namely Braden Holtby's tremendous stretch of stellar goaltending, are contributing to their current success. However, after the Caps' inspiring almost first half of this season, you might be inclined to utter something along the lines of "these here Capitals can compete with any team, I say, any team!" What you see above is an empirical argument in your favor.

There's a lot more to the game of hockey than five-on-five  play— the Caps are great at some of it, less so at other parts. But the meat of the game is played at five-a-side with the outcome up for grabs, and so long as they continue on the track they've laid, there's no reason to believe these Washington Capitals aren't for real.