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Slow Starts and Quick Comebacks

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The Capitals don't always make the best first impression

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Back in July we took an in-depth look at the slow starts that plagued the Capitals during last year's regular season and playoffs. We didn't, and still don't,  know if poor starts are a truly a repeatable phenomenon but the Caps are once again playing their worst hockey at the beginning of games. Have a look:

2015-2016 Capitals* 1st Period 2nd Period 3rd Period
Score Adjusted Corsi For (%) 48.9 51.4 54.9
Goals For (%) 52.5 61.7 63.8

*Stats from War-On-Ice, through February 17

The Capitals tend to play better as the game goes on, but slow starts aren't necessarily a recipe for success. Generally speaking, it's not easy to come back from a deficit, especially in the playoffs - over the last three postseasons the team that has given up the first goal has a winning percentage of just under 30% (80 of 268). And you'll recall that slow starts plagued the Caps a bit in the playoffs last spring - in their 14 postseason games last year, the Capitals gave up the first goal eight times and during the first period were outscored 7-4 during five-on-five play and 9-6 overall.

But let's take a closer look at the 2015-16 Caps' in-game rolling time line for a better view of what we're talking about here (thanks, Muneeb, for the data):

Notice how the Capitals really thrive in the middle of the second and the end of the third. The third period bump is particularly interesting because the Capitals were a middling CF% team while leading last season (17th), and are still mediocre while playing with the lead this year (15th). But they do have that whole "won't be denied" thing (more on that in a moment) going on when they're trailing, and that is, in part, reflected here.

Getting outshot early, unsurprisingly, has shown up on the scoreboard as well - through Sunday, the Capitals have given up the first goal on 28 separate occasions with 23 of those occurring during the first period. And while the Caps have managed a 15-9-4 record in those games (coming away with two points a staggering 53.6% of the time), the league-average winning percentage when yielding the first tally is just 29% this season (in line with those playoff numbers above).

As the Devils found out on Saturday night, the Capitals' comeback ability has been awfully impressive. Washington has trailed by one goal 55 times this season and has tallied the equalizer over 65% of the time; no other team in the league is above 50%. The Capitals have been down by one goal during the first period in 25 different games but have only entered the first intermission with a deficit 15 times (there are fifteen teams that have trailed in the first period in fewer games than the Capitals, but only six teams have trailed for fewer minutes.). That's due, in-part, to both a high shooting and save percentage but don't sell the team short; they play exceptional hockey while trailing.

While Trailing (5v5) Rate Per Sixty League Rank
Goals For 3.7 1st
Scoring Chances For 33.7 2nd
Shots For 35.4 3rd

This Caps team is able to climb out of a hole before their opponents have an opportunity to make it any deeper. And when they need a goal, this Caps team has been a handful. Just ask Cory Schneider about the last ten minutes of Saturday night's game:

"We got the lead there and we see there's another level we need to get to in order to be considered a legitimate team, a contender here and they showed that they're the best team in the league for a reason," Schneider said. "Once we got that goal, it just seemed like they weren't going to be denied there. ... We're not giving anything up here at all, but a game that we had in hand and should be our bread and butter there – eight minutes to go with a lead – and they just kind of ate us alive there in our own end."

The bottom line here is that the Capitals' slow starts are something that the team should work to improve. Sure, it's possible that the team has found a way to "flip the switch" as needed but, moving forward, it's better to have never trailed at all than to have trailed and had to come back.