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If You Think The Caps Are Good... Well, They’re Special

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Special teams come into focus as the dog days of February come to a close

Anaheim Ducks v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

“Oh, it’s one of these posts again.”

Yep, you know the drill (here’s last month’s update), so let’s just dive right in on this one. Here's a League-wide ranking in 21 metrics (data via, Corsica.Hockey and Puck On Net; click to enlarge all charts in this post):

The Caps still look like a very good team “whose results may well outpace their underlying numbers, thanks to strong special teams, finishing talent and goaltending.”

Oh, and luck. That helps. The invaluable Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) churns out helpful visualizations of relevant data like it’s his job (because, in part, it is), and the chart below shows PDO (the sum of five-on-five save percentage and shooting percentage) for the years for which data is available. The Caps are blowing everyone in this history out of the water:

We’ve said it before: the Caps have been good and fortunate, and this chart shows as much. No team gets 60 games into a season with a PDO of nearly 105 without a good deal of both.

As for how this past month has gone, the Caps have basically made small gains in scoring and on the power play, and have slid a little bit on the penalty kill, shot metrics and draws:

One reason for the uptick in scoring is, unsurprisingly, that power play, a unit that has gone 8-for-28 (28.6%) in February, while the penalty kill has been pierced six times in 27 times short (77.8% success).

Speaking of the power play (much-maligned early on), call it regression to the mean, call it getting on track, call it good fortune, call it whatever you want, since November 16, the Caps have gone 34-for-137 (24.8%) with the extra man, which is good for the most power-play goals on the circuit and the second-highest conversion rate. And since January 9? They’ve scored on one of every three opportunities, going 19-for-57. That’ll do.

On the flip side of that coin, over roughly the same span, the penalty kill has been leaky, surrendering a goal in every four times short (12-for-48) since January 16, fifth-worst in the League. In aggregate, both special teams units have been terrific, and only the St. Louis Blues join the Caps among the top-seven in the League in both power play and penalty kill efficiency (the Caps slot in at ninth in both power play goals-for rate and penalty kill goals-against rate, for other measures of how the special teams are doing).

One last point on special teams - rates and efficiencies are, of course, just one piece of the puzzle, with the number of opportunities factoring into the overall story. And, for the Caps, that’s a big piece of the story because the Caps have the worst five-on-five penalty differential in the League, a whopping minus-34 (147/181) in 61 games, per Corsica. A little quick math and we see that 147 power-play opportunities would yield 32 goals at the Caps’ 21.8 conversion rate, while going shorthanded 181 times and killing off 83.8 percent of those would allow 29 goals. (Put another way, split the difference and converting at their current rates on 164 opportunities on each special teams unit would give the Caps around a plus-9 differential.) So it’s easy to see that the advantage of having two terrific special teams units is being nearly squandered by that penalty differential. That’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

At five-on-five, everything’s still looking pretty good, especially when you adjust the shot metrics for context. Back to the fine work of Sean Tierney, these two charts show the Caps’ score- and venue-adjusted Corsi-For (CF) and -Against (CA) rates on a game-by-game basis:

You can see that February has been okay, generally - per Corsica, the Caps had a modest 51.2 adjusted CF%, and had the better of the five-on-five shots in six of the 11 games, four times topping 60% (and twice falling below 40%... and earning three points in those two games, the 5-0 shutout over Los Angeles and the 3-2 shootout loss to Detroit). But keep an eye on those shot rates - the overall trends on both isn’t exactly great.

And while that 51.2 isn’t a particularly impressive mark, Expected Goals tell a rosier story:

That’s eight of 11 games on the right side of 50%, five times above 58%, and an aggregate mark of 53.2%.

Put it all together and you’ve got a good five-on-five team bolstered by a high shooting percentage (11.0% in February) and a high save percentage (.935 for the month), a power play that’s clicking and a penalty kill that’s hit a bit of a rut and it’s not hard to see how they’ve kept humming along with an 8-2-1 month so far. This is who the Caps are. And now they’ve got Kevin Shattenkirk.

One last note - the bye certainly did the Caps no favors, as the Caps have only managed a 47.8 CF% and a 2-2-1 record since the week off. Heck, they’ve even been more banged up since the time off than they were heading into the break. So far this season, just about the only thing that has been able to slow the Caps down is the schedule. Let’s hope the team gets back to playing that way, because the games are going to get awfully important awfully soon.