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Are the Capitals Developing a Killer Instinct?

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A look at how the Caps may have turned a weakness into a strength

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Halfway through the 2014-15 season, the Washington Capitals were playing at a stellar 104-point pace, but had some readily identifiable issues they needed to fix if they wanted to be taken seriously as an Eastern Conference contender. Topping that list was how the team played with a lead (an issue we wrote about in November and then again in December).

Since the season's midway point, however - January 11, to be precise - the Caps have posted the League's second-best five-on-five Corsi-For percentage when leading, trailing only the LA Kings. So what's behind the turnaround?

First, let's take a look at the numbers (via war-on-ice, naturally):

Segment Games with Leads 5v5 TOI with Lead Corsi-For % CF60 CA60 Fenwick-For %
Games 1-41 35 769.6 44.8 47.2 58.2 44.6
Games 42-58 11 268.6 52.3 58.3 53.2 55.1

With the obvious caveat that this recent segment is less than one-third the size of the other, the difference is striking across the board. The Caps have been able to reduce their Corsi-Against rate (CA60), which is a good thing to do while leading (fewer shot attempts-against presumably lead to fewer goals-against), but at the same time they've been able to increase their Corsi-For rate (CF60) dramatically. Since January 11, the Caps are third in the League in Corsi-For rate (Chicago, N.Y. Islanders) and fifth in Corsi-Against rate (Detroit, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, St. Louis).

We'd lamented the Caps going into defensive shells and taking their foot off the gas when up a goal or more - this ain't that. In fact, over the same span, the Caps' CF60 is only 57.9 and their CA60 is 55.5 when tied. In other words, they're taking more shots and allowing fewer when leading than when tied. Those are "going for the kill" numbers. (And what better way to "secure the hockey game"?)

And the improved underlying numbers have produced results, as the Caps have potted 60% of the five-on-five goals scored while they've held the lead over this span (nine of 15) after playing the first 41 games netting only 46.8% of those markers (29 of 62, and they were lucky it wasn't worse... thanks, Braden Holtby!).

The big question, of course, is what changed? The numbers say they've been more aggressive, or at the very least, less interested in simply handing the puck right back to the opposition via chips and dump-ins after gaining possession themselves. But what about deployments? Back in late December, we advocated using Alex Ovechkin more when leading and followed it up in January clamoring similarly for more Mike Green. Here's what we've seen in the two segments:

Usage 1-41

Usage 42-58

Well, it's not more Ovechkin or Green - they've actually seen their percentage of ice time while leading go down a hair (oops, sorry Ryan Getzlaf). Andre Burakovsky - who looks like a possession-driver early in his career - has gotten more ice time, but otherwise the deployments have been pretty similar. What doesn't look similar, however, is the play of the top pair of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson. To wit, over the first segment, Orpik and Carlson had Relative Corsi-For percentages of -4.4 and 0.9, respectively (raw Corsi-For percentages of 42.1 and 45.4), but those numbers have spiked to 4.7 and 4.7 (55.2 and 55.2) in this last set of games. The Caps' top pair - often out there with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom - is driving the bus right now.

The change is clear to see, but it's worth noting that the biggest changes have come with the team up more than a goal. Take a look:

Up-1b

The Caps' "Up-1" play has been pretty consistent for a while now, but they've been better when leading by two (which is an even smaller sample here that includes just five games). Still, when leading by one since January 11 the Caps do have a 52.1% Corsi-For, which is a marked improvement over what preceded it. So, cautious optimism.

Again, these are relatively small samples - Orpik's total ice time with the lead for this recent run of games is just 102 minutes, for example, and they've come against mixed opposition. Can they keep it up? It's probably unlikely that they can maintain this high a level of play with the lead, but the aggressiveness should be noted... as should the fact that this span includes the leads the Caps gagged up to Nashville and Edmonton in a pair of soul-crushing losses. But it's been an encouraging stretch of hockey with respect to what looked to be (and still might be) one of this team's biggest weaknesses; whatever the Caps are doing right now with the lead, they need to keep doing it... for the most part.