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The Afternoon Narrative: First Things First, Must-Win (?) and The D

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

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Game 1’s first period was a bit of a snoozer, with only ten shots total (the Caps ended the period with a 6-4 edge) and just 29 shot attempts (Caps, 16-13). In other words, one shot on goal - total - every two minutes, around one shot attempt every 41 seconds of playing time... and a lot of that came via a last-third push by Washington. Graphically, it looked like this:

via HockeyStats.ca

Yawn (with a bad Caps’ flat-line for nearly ten minutes).

But that lackadaisical first was really a missed opportunity for the Caps to jump on a somewhat rusty Penguins team that has struggled to get going from the opening puck drop so far in the playoffs. Here, via Natural Stat Trick, are the Pens’ first period five-on-five shot metrics through six games:

So maybe it’s no surprise that the Pens were happy with what outwardly appeared to be a ho-hum start.

From that column:

Against the Capitals, the Penguins were outstanding defensively during the opening 20 minutes. Gaps were tight. They did a particularly fine job of denying passing lanes, several times knocking pucks out of their air with their sticks.

What impressed coach Mike Sullivan the most, however, was how quickly the Penguins exited their zone, a point of emphasis during several uptempo workouts at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

“The last week we’ve spent a lot of time on the ice and watching film, trying to come out of our zone a little bit cleaner," Sullivan said. "I thought our guys helped one another there. There was a lot to like in that first period.”

Things got bad (and worse) in a hurry once the second period started, and the Caps did dominate the game the rest of the way (everywhere except where it mattered, of course). But if the Pens’ first-period struggles (Sullivan’s praise for their Game 1 effort notwithstanding), it would behoove the Caps to make hay while the sun is shining, and that would seem to be in the first period... where they’re currently leading the playoffs in goals-for and goal differential.

2. If the Caps can’t find a way to win Game 2 on Saturday night, they’ll be in a deep, deep hole. (That’s the type of analysis that’s worth every penny you paid for it.) How deep? Consider the historical precedence of teams falling behind 2-0 in best-of-seven series, having played the first two games at home, via WhoWins:

With a Game 2 loss, the Caps would be on that bottom line. Frankly, that 24% historical chance is higher than might be expected. But this isn’t a typical second-round opponent, so we’ve included the stats from Conference Finals (“Semis”), because these were the two best teams in the East; that deficit has been overcome once in 19 instances. And we’ve included the numbers from Stanley Cup Finals (“Finals”), because these were the two best teams in the League; that deficit has been overcome twice in 12 instances. (The “all” site rows disregard which team had home ice.)

So if you look at all sports and treat this like a semifinal round, teams have dropped the first two games at home 44 times and come back to win the series just once (and that one probably wasn’t against the defending champs and the league’s second-best regular-season team).

Regardless of the outcome of Game 2, the Caps will head to Pittsburgh (where the Pens posted a League-low six home losses during the season) to play Games 3 and 4, so whether or not you call Game 2 a “must-win” probably depends on how pedantic you are. But it sure looks must win-y from here.

3. Asked about Karl Alzner’s status (he’s missed the last five games with an upper body injury), Trotz was succinct:

Also the same? The question of what happens if and when Alzner is ready to go... though the answer, at least in the collective mind of the fan base, might be changing. Specifically, the already eroded faith in Brooks Orpik’s play took another hit last night, as the veteran blueliner lost Nick Bonino and was never able to recover on the game’s decisive tally:

Flashback to our post from yesterday on the Orpik-Kevin Shattenkirk duo:

But one thing’s certain, and that’s that Orpik and Shattenkirk are likely to draw against just as much speed as they saw (and didn’t handle particularly well) in Round 1. Improved play from the Caps’ third pairing is going to be imperative for the Caps to hang with the defending champs.

Welp.

Then again, the pair played well up to that point. And they’ve been good throughout the playoffs... except for when they haven’t been. In fact, per Corsica, the Caps have three of the top-13 defensive pairs (by score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five Corsi-For percentage) in the playoffs:

So let’s take a closer look at the Caps’ trio of duos:

Despite being comfortably over 50% in all shot metrics (include Scoring-Chances For percentage), Orpik and Shattenkirk have been getting killed on percentages, both offensive (a 0.0 percent shooting percentage isn’t very good) and defensive (that 84.6 save percentage is also terrible. In fact...

Instead of their expected Goals-For percentage of 56.1 percent, Orpik-Shattenkirk has been on the ice for six opposing tallies and nary a Caps lamp-lighter. Part of the low shooting percentage owes to low-quality forward teammates (maybe the third line can pot one soon), but a lot of it, at both ends of the ice, is luck and random variance.

And a lot of it isn’t.

So, for now, the Caps don’t have many options other than to keep the faith, ride this out, and hope that those percentages regress, at least a bit (and that Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov’s don’t). The pair has handled their assignments well... except for when they haven’t. And that was the story in Game 1, not just for the Caps’ third pair, but for the entire team - generally very good, with a few soul-crushing lapses. Those are hard to overcome, regardless of any edge in shot attempts.

Lastly, while the Caps will have to wait on their reinforcement, it would appear as if the Pens’ wait on one of theirs is over:

Hagelin should help a group of Pens’ forwards that was thoroughly outplayed (but not outscored) in Game 1, and pose even more trouble for any Caps defender who has difficulty handling speed...