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The Washington Capitals: Break-ing Bad

The Caps had their league-approved week-long break from the regular season schedule last month, and they have been sluggish since coming back. How much? Let’s look.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Ever find yourself coming off a week of vacation at the beach or on the ski slopes, or even just hanging around the house, and you find that getting back into your usual productive rhythm at work is difficult? Well, it appears hockey players are no different. Case in point, the Washington Capitals.

You will remember that going into their week-long hiatus in February, the Caps were the hottest team in the league, posting an 18-2-1 record in the new year before heading off on their separate ways for the break. In the 18 days since coming back, however, the Caps have had a bit of a time trying to regain their momentum.

Record-wise, they haven’t been bad, going 5-3-1 overall, the 11 standings points earned in those nine games tied for sixth most in the league since their return to action on February 18th (all numbers and rankings through Monday’s games and from unless otherwise noted). But the first indicator of trouble is their offensive output. They have just 20 goals in those nine games (2.22/game). In a way, it is the tale of an offensive coming back to earth. Those 20 goals were recorded on 278 shots, a 7.2 shooting percentage. Compare that to an 11.5 percent shooting mark before the break. What makes it a bit disappointing is that the Caps are actually up a tick in shots on goal, averaging 30.9 since the break after averaging 29.6 before it.

Still on the offensive side of the ledger, the power play is off as well. The opportunities have been constant – the Caps averaging 2.98 power play opportunities per game before the break and 3.00 after – but it is in the efficiency where they have come up short. Before the break, the Caps were converting at a 22.2 percent rate, fifth in the league at the time. Since the break, they have converted at an 18.5 percent rate, 16th in the league.

The offensive slide extends to the shot attempt measures, too. Before the break, Washington’s shot attempt percentage (SAT%) was seventh best in the league (51.31). What is more, when tied or ahead, they maintained or exceeded that level of effectiveness, relative to the other teams in the league. They were second in SAT% when tied (54.1) and seventh when ahead (49.07). Only when behind were they lagging, sitting in 21st place (52.40 percent).

Since the break, however, the Caps are just 15th overall in SAT% (50.31) and have dipped considerably when tied (22nd place at 47.09 percent). They have maintained a top-ten spot both when ahead (10th at 48.92 percent) and when behind (ninth at 54.90 percent), but their possession numbers have taken a hit overall.

The defensive side of the ledger is a bit more nuanced. Overall, the Caps have allowed just 17 goals in the nine games since the break (1.89/game). They have sliced their shots allowed a bit as well, down from 27.95 per game in 56 games before the break to 26.89 in the nine games since. The shot attempts tell a slightly different story, though, as noted in the preceding paragraphs on SAT.

The difference then and now is in the goaltending. Before the break, it was good. Very good in fact. Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer combined for a 2.01 goals against average and a .928 save percentage with 10 shutouts before the break. Since then, the goaltending has been nothing short of outstanding, Holtby and Grubauer combining for a 1.66 goals against average and a .938 save percentage.

But that improvement is solely the product of Holtby’s play. Grubauer has slipped a bit, going from 1.98/.931/3 shutouts in 15 contests before the break to 2.40/.908/no shutouts in three appearances since (yes, a small population of events from which to draw a trend). Holtby, meanwhile, was 2.02/.926/seven shutouts in 43 games before the break but is 1.37/.949/ 1 shutout in seven appearances since then. And Holtby’s improvement has been uniform by strength. His even strength save percentage is up from .938 pre-break to .947 since. Even bigger is his improvement when the Caps are shorthanded. His save percentage is up from .836 before the break to .944 since, although that represents a very small population of shots (17 saves on 18 shots faced).

Among the skaters, the surprise is two sides of the same coin, or rather the same line. On one side is Nicklas Backstrom leading the Caps with four goals in the nine games since the break, although his points per game (0.78) is off from his pre-break mark (1.07). The other side of that coin/line is his linemate Alex Ovechkin, who has one power play goal and just two even strength points in nine games since the break.

Several other players who had been on a roll going into the break left their momentum there coming out of it. For example…

  • Justin Williams was 11-10-21, plus-16 in 23 games leading up to the break. He is 1-3-4, even, in nine games since.
  • Brett Connolly was 7-5-12, plus-15, in 15 games before the break. He is 1-0-1, plus-2, in nine games after the break.
  • Jay Beagle was 5-3-8, plus-9 in 14 games going into the break. He is 0-2-2, even, in nine games since.
  • Marcus Johansson was 7-11-18, plus-12, in 25 games leading up to the break. He is 2-1-3, minus-1 after the hiatus.

What has also hurt is, well, the hurt. Andre Burakovsky was lost to the club with a hand injury on February 9th after going 6-8-14, plus-13, in the 13 games he played before that. He has not yet returned to the lineup.

T.J. Oshie was 13-12-25, plus-14, in 20 games leading up to the break, but he has appeared in just five of nine games since the break due to what was suspected to be a concussion. He is 2-2-4, even, in those five games.

If there has been a bright spot among the skaters, it is Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was 9-18-27, plus-16, in 24 games before the break, and he has come closest to that rate of production since among the relied-upon scorers, going 3-4-7, minus-1, in nine games.

Overall, the pre- and post-break divide has not been isolated to one particular area or one particular player or group of players. The team is not performing at its pre-break level in terms of possession or offensive effectiveness. The defense has been stingy since the break, but not extraordinarily so or even more so than before the break. Quite a few individual skaters, with a couple of exceptions (Backstrom, Kuznetsov) had their momentum stopped cold with the break. One might argue that absent the play of Braden Holtby in goal, the Caps might not have enjoyed a record as good as 5-3-1 since coming back from their league-approved in-season vacation.

The breadth of the problem and the overreliance on goaltending is a concern. Not a panic, since we have only nine games of post-break action to look at. However, the Caps are about to embark on a 14-day, eight-game stretch of the schedule that includes the annual three-game west coast road trip and games against playoff-eligible teams (Nashville, Minnesota, Calgary, and Columbus) or teams fighting for their playoff life (Tampa Bay). It will not be quite a test of “contender versus pretender” for the Caps, but this part of the schedule should be sufficient motivation to shake off the cobwebs once and for all of their momentum-stifling break.