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The Morning Narrative: Under Pressure, Fives Hole and “Mindset Adjustment”

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Three things we’re talking about this morning when we’re talking about the Caps

Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. The mainstream media folks north of the border smell blood, and it’s the Caps’ that are bleeding out (yes, at 1-2 in the series). But this isn’t just any blood - it’s the blood of perennial chokers! Our pal Steinz has it well documented, so here’s just a sampling from his collection (it’s cool, we borrow from each other all the time):

“[W]e can conclude that they are crumbling under the weight of their playoff history.”

“Sometimes it’s just the intangible, and the intangible is the want to win.“

“‘Wow, you guys always seem to find a way to lose, don’t you?’“

“The mismatch is in the Capitals’ heads. It’s a battle between the ghosts of their many playoff failures of the past and their current attempts to convince themselves they’re a different group than the one that’s never delivered on the promise of the Alex Ovechkin era. And as it sits, doesn’t it seem like the ghosts are winning in a rout?“

“[T]he Capitals are doing it again. It’s happening so quickly, you can imagine the whole Washington team writhing around on the locker-room floor between periods, horror-movie-style, as their regular-season Jekyll transforms into postseason Hyde.“

That’s from five different sources, mind you. Don’t even try to imagine what they’ll be saying tomorrow if things continue the way they’ve gone so far, because you literally can’t.

That said, as we noted yesterday, some of that sentiment is fair... until it isn’t. To wit, per WhoWins.com, “[t]he Maple Leafs trailed Washington in Toronto by two goals as late as 15:12 into the second period. In the history of best-of-7 NHL playoff games from 1939 through 2016, inclusive, home teams such as Toronto in series 1322 Game 3 down two goals as late as 15:12 into the second period had a game record of only 36-317 (.102).“ In other words, the Caps “[found] a way to lose” a game that 90 percent of similarly situated teams have won in the past. So... yeah.

And lest you think it’s a Canadian thing...

[On a related note, check out my spot on the Pension Plan Puppets podcast discussing the series to date and whether or not fans are justified in their pessimism.]

2. Over the course of the regular season, no team allowed fewer five-on-five goals than the Caps (112, per Corsica.hockey). In fact, since Barry Trotz took over behind the Caps’ bench, no team has surrendered fewer in a season (the closest was L.A.’s 121 in 2015-16).

In the playoffs so far, however, it’s been a different story, as none of the teams that has played just three game has surrendered more tallies at fives than the Caps (8). Part of that is random variance (a.k.a. “luck”), especially in the small second-season sample. Then again, their score- and venue-adjusted shots-against rate (CA60) is up a whopping 32 percent, from the circuit’s third-best regular season mark of 51.5 to a League-worst 68.1 in the playoffs. And that’s not just the worst rate in this year’s playoffs, it’s the worst since the start of the 2013-14 season. (All of those numbers via Corsica.)

Those numbers will regress some (right?!), but this is a shocking turn for a Caps club that prides itself on its ability to defend. Braden Holtby has been good in net, but without more help in front of him, even the reigning Vezina winner is going to have trouble keeping pucks out of the net. Daniel Winnik agrees:

3. So is the problem with the players or the schemes? The answer is almost certainly “yes,” but ask Trotz about his team’s execution and he might take a page out of John McKay’s book:

Perhaps (and if it’s between the ears that needs fixin’, you’d think that speaks to the first point above). Trotz continued (via Dump ‘n Chase):

“It’s going to be all about the will, and who wants it more. You get to the playoffs and the standings don’t mean anything at all. You all go at it and you play hard, and whoever wants it more will end up winning.”

To be fair, Trotz isn’t blind to the fact that there may be tactical tweaks needed (and, in fact, they made some heading into Game 3 that seemed to work for the first two-thirds of the game or so), and he’s acknowledged that he needs to get Alex Ovechkin more ice time than he got in Game 3. Moreover, there’s only so much a coach is going to give away in scrums, especially this time of year. So it’s not like the coach is shirking responsibility for the state the Caps are in (after all, it’s as important for a coach to prepare a team mentally as it is to provide them with the tactics to be able to compete).

But the notion that the Caps are in a hole because they haven’t emphasized “will over skill” enough probably isn’t the way to dig out of it. Case in point: item number two above.