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Failure to Launch: First Period Struggles A Potential Cause For Concern

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A look at the Caps' slow starts (it's not just your imagination)

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The end of the 2014-15 NHL regular season is quickly approaching. The trade deadline has come and gone and the Capitals were able to bolster their depth without having to move much of anything in terms of current players (though the team might have been well served to unload a few). A playoff berth is all but assured and the nightmare that was Adam Oates's coaching tenure is quickly being forgotten... to the extent that it ever can be.

But all is not well in Caps' land; the team's puck possession numbers have been eroding rather consistently for the last month-and-change and secondary scoring has all but disappeared, save for the occasional outburst against a weaker opponent. Here's a look at the Capitals' 10 game rolling Score-Adjusted-Corsi-For percentage (SACF%) chart from war-on-ice, which measures the Capitals' percentage of five-on-five shots taken, adjusted for score (so as to strip score effects from the data):

CF%

While the team appears to be starting to bounce back (games against Toronto, Columbus and especially Buffalo can do that for you), the overall tumble in possession is concerning.  While discussing this trend on Twitter, Eric Fingerhut and Jordan Ziegler inquired (or suggested) that the driving force behind the poor possession might be found in the Capitals' poor starts.

To try and examine that theory we once again turn to data from war-on-ice. From the All-Star Break through Thursday's loss to Minnesota, the Capitals had an astonishingly bad SACF% of just 46.5% during the first period. To put that number into perspective, the team had a higher SACF% during the first period last season (46.8%) than they have had over their last twenty games this year.

So in order to get a better understanding of whether these first period issues were indeed a new development we isolated the five-on-five SACF% numbers for all three periods both before and after the All-Star Break (again, data is prior to the Buffalo game).

Time Period 1st Period SACF (%) 2nd Period SACF (%) 3rd Period SACF (%)
Pre-ASG 51.6% 53.6% 52.3%
Post-ASG 46.5% 52.4% 48.6%
Change -5.1% -1.2% -3.7%

While the team has seen their possession decline across all three periods, the decline in the first is by far the largest. So while the cause of the slow starts is still unknown, they (the slow starts) are clearly are a contributor to the team's downturn in possession numbers. Even when the Capitals came out of the first period with a lead, like they did against the Wild on Thursday, they have rarely driven play. Let's hope that the recent struggles (across all periods) are not a reflection of this team's true capabilities.

Obviously, the hope is that the Caps true level of play is closer to their pre-ASG levels than those we have seen recently... but the team probably falls somewhere in the middle. Rather than segregate the data from each period both pre- and post-ASG, let's examine the season as a whole. Here's a look at how the Capitals (and their Metropolitan division rivals) have possessed the puck during all three periods this year.

The colored dashed lines indicate the cumulative SACF% for the team of the corresponding color (Washington's cumulative SACF% line is red, Pittsburgh's is gold, Islanders' is orange, Rangers' is Blue)

SACF Metro

Due to their recent play Washington now has the worse score adjusted possession numbers of any playoff team from the Metropolitan division (which isn't encouraging for the team's post-season aspirations). The Capitals' best period is definitely the second, perhaps the long change allows the Capitals to be a bit more free flowing offensively than they are in the other two periods.

Two Numbers That Matter:

  1. The Capitals rank 22nd in the League in first period shot attempt generation (49.5 SACF/60). Fortunately they also do a pretty good job suppressing attempts against in the first. They yield 49.2 SACA/60 which is good enough for eighth-best in the League.
  2. In the second period the Capitals are able to maintain their shot suppression (no change) while greatly increasing their shot generation. The team generates an additional 6.5 shot attempts (after score adjustment) per sixty minutes in the second than they do in the first.
So the big takeaway here is that the Capitals play well in the second and not so well in the first. The scoring chance numbers for the Caps trend in line with the numbers graphed above. The team plays their best hockey in the second, they are middling in the third, and at their worst in the first.

The Capitals will have to work on coming out of the gate strong over the last month of the season. There is some debate as to whether there is really any merit in team's coming out of the gate and "setting the tone", but if such a thing truly matters the Caps really should work on doing a better job of it. Because if current trends hold true the Capitals are likely to struggle if they are matched up with either the Penguins or the Islanders in the first round with any team in the first round of the playoffs.