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Don't Be Fooled: Poor Luck is Masking Capitals' Strong Play

A look at the Capitals' recent dearth of scoring at five a side, and at some trends that suggest that should soon change.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Even strength scoring, and more specifically 5v5 scoring, is arguably the most important ingredient to winning hockey games on account of the bulk of the game being played in that state. For most of the season, the Caps numbers in this avenue have been favorable; only Dallas and the New York Rangers score at a better clip than Washington at fives. If you add in goals allowed at fives to the equation, the Caps' 55.7% GF at five on five is good for 2nd in the NHL, behind only Pittsburgh's 55.9%.

It's been a rough go of late, though, with the Caps being shutout in regulation in three of their last six outings, and failing to score a five-on-five goal in four of those six. You can see below (courtesy of Corsica) that it's been the worst six-game stretch of the season:

Not exactly ideal as the team gears up for a playoffs in which there will be an incredible amount of pressure to hurdle obstacles uncleared in previous years...namely the second round. But upon closer examination, is there really overmuch to be worried about here?

Before diving into the numbers, let's hear what some of the players had to say about this topic to The Washington Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan. Isabelle writes:

"We've been struggling putting pucks in five-on-five for some reason," Karl Alzner said. " ... We're just a little bit snake-bitten right now. That can change pretty quick, so hopefully it does soon. Teams are playing us hard, and it's the end of the year and they're either grinding it out or just having fun out there. It's hard to play against them.


T.J. Oshie mentioned the volume of opportunities the team has been generating.

"There's some luck in it, but I don't think we can really count on that or blame it on that," T.J. Oshie said. "It just comes down to guys bearing down and scoring goals. We get a lot of opportunities, and we've got a lot of really good players that can put the puck in the net. Maybe a little bit of a dry spell here five-on-five, but not too worried about it. I think it's going to pick up pretty quick here."

Oshie's probably right about what the immediate future holds. Let's look at the team's shooting percentage, which we know is subject to periods of sharp variance of the course of a season, in 6 game segments, for the entirety of the Ovechkin era.

Check out that last data point -- there's only one so low on the rest of the chart, which is to say that the Caps' have only shot at a lower six-game efficiency than these last six games once in the last decade. To illustrate the volatility (or streakiness) at play here, the six-game segment that succeeded that era-worst mark in November 2006 was the highwater shooting mark of the last ten years. So I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend.

To provide a little more context, the Caps have shot at a feeble 2.3% over this stretch. Their season average shooting percentage is an 8.2%. What this boils down to is that if the Caps had maintained their season average firing the pill over the past six games, wherein they notched 172 shots on goal, they would have turned on the lamp ~14 times instead of four.

All of this hints at a reality that's not nearly so dire as the perception. We know that possession tends to be a better indicator of future performance than scoring, so let's take a look at how the ice has been tilted during this paucity of goals:

Possession-wise, this has actually been one of the Caps' best stretches of the season. Granted, this six-game set includes matchups against Colorado, Arizona, and New Jersey, who are the three worst possession teams in the League,  and tilts with Ottawa and Columbus, who both fall in the NHL's bottom seven teams, but for a team that's been inconsistent in the possession game all season, to handily win the possession battle in all those games is a good sign.

We've speculated that Barry Trotz's system prioritizes scoring chance generation (and prevention) over sheer shot attempts, and this season's data has generally supported that theory, with the Caps' share of scoring chances outpacing their shot attempt numbers all year long. And even by a measure in which the Caps have performed consistently well this season, the last stretch of six games has been one of their best.

And while we've focused on rolling six game samples here on account of the recent stretch of dried up scoring, the trends pan out over larger samples as well.

There's not a lot left to unpack here. The Caps have run into some hot goaltending, hit more iron than a blacksmith, and otherwise had some bad luck. Everything else about the underlying numbers shows that the Caps are playing some good hockey.

At this point in the season, it's easy to argue that the inputs are more important than the outputs -- which is to say, the quality of the Caps' on-ice product is more important than the results of the games. But that's not the case in the playoffs; there are no silver linings in the NHL's second season, and in about one week's time that's only going to matter if the numbers on the surface follow suit. The numbers below the surface suggest that the Caps' have indeed flipped the switch. Here's hoping that starts to show in their results once the postseason gets underway.