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Regular Season Domination and Complacency

Do dominant regular season teams often struggle down the stretch?

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The Caps have secured home-ice advantage through the end of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and Micah Blake McCurdy's predictive model has the Capitals with a 99.9% chance of winning the President's Trophy.  So needless to say, they don't have a lot to play for right now, and while they've still been winning, their lack of urgency (and general poor play) has caught the attention of their head coach.

Trotz recently reached out to both Joel Quenneville and Mike Babcock, coaches who have been behind the bench of dominant regular season teams through similar periods of complacency in the past. It appears that Trotz's biggest takeaway from those conversations was that the players will turn it around as the playoffs draw near and the games "matter" once again.

Well, we are getting pretty close to crunch time now and the Capitals are still not looking like a team that's quite ready for a deep playoff run. So how "normal" is this? Historically, do dominant regular season teams struggle down the stretch?

Since the 2007-08 season, nine teams have finished a season with a points percentage of 71% or better (115 points in an 82 game season or 68 in 2012-13). When have each of those teams played their worst hockey of the season?

Sometimes a team that is playing well is perceived to be slumping when they are really just going through a stretch of poor puck luck (see last year's Blackhawks). To avoid that pitfall we identified teams' worst stretches of play in terms of two different  all situations/15 game rolling statistics: Goals-For (GF)% and Score-Adjusted-Corsi-For (SACF)%.

Going into their game against the Senators earlier this week, the Capitals were in the midst of their lowest 15 game stretch of GF% this season, and weren't far above their season low in terms of SACF% either. Based on the chart above, the Caps' current slump doesn't appear to be particularly unusual among their peer group; not every dominant regular season team plays their worst hockey at the end of the season, but a late slump doesn't necessarily predict an early playoff exit.

Four of the ten teams that met our criteria advanced to at least the Conference Finals: the 2007-08 Red Wings, the 2010-11 Canucks, the 2012-13 Penguins, and the 2012-13 Blackhawks. Of those four, all but Pittsburgh advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, and both Detroit and Chicago took home the Cup.

Each of the teams in the graph above experienced a lull at some point between Game 65 and the start of the playoffs. That Detroit team had their lowest 15 game stretch of  SACF% between Games 58-72, and they rounded back into form prior to the playoffs. 

If teams that go through a period of complacency prior to the playoffs are able to "turn it back on", you'd expect their rolling SACF% to increase as the playoffs drew nearer, and it's not quite clear if that is the case. The graph is pretty noisy, but it does look like a lot of the teams end up pretty close to their full season SACF% as their season draws to a close.

The hope has to be that the Capitals can follow suit and move the dial back towards their full season SACF% (or higher) because they don't have the same margin for error as some of the other teams in our sample.

There is a broad spectrum of teams that have finished with at least 115 points (or on a 115-point pace), and in terms of puck possession, the Capitals are near the bottom of the list.

Unsurprisingly, the graph for GF% is much more favorable. Teams that are unable to outscore their opponents tend not to end up very high in the standings - so it's to be expected that all of these teams have a similar end-of-season GF%.

For much of the season the Capitals on-ice success has, to some extent, outpaced their play and generally that trend is not sustainable into the playoffs. But even if nothing changes they could still win a few rounds (or even more), as this team has superior scoring talent, above average goaltending, and is strong on both the PP and PK. None of this is to say that the Capitals are doomed, nor are they a sure thing to win it all - of these nine fantastic regular season teams, only two Stanley Cup Winners are accounted for.

Plenty of great regular season teams have experienced a  lull prior to the playoffs, but there will be a cause for concern if the Capitals aren't able to right the ship prior to Game 1 of the ECQF.

Stats Derived From War-On-Ice