“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.”
-- Benjamin Franklin
The Washington Capitals are on their league-mandated bye week for the 2017-2018 season. One wonders if by “bye,” the league means “bye-bye” to any momentum a team might generate going into that interruption in game play.
If recent experience for the Caps is any indicator, beware the bye.
Last season, the Caps had six full days off in mid-February, from the 12th through the 17th. What happened before and after is perhaps not predictive, but it is interesting to ponder. The eight days before the break and after provide a neat symmetry, the Caps having played five games in both of those eight game segments.
The Caps played five games in the eight days preceding their bye week last season, four of them at home. Here is how it went:
Those five wins to close the pre-bye portion of the schedule was the tail end of a six-game winning streak for the Caps and the end of a run that produced a record of 19-2-1 over a 22-game span starting on New Year’s Eve 2016. It was an especially impressive five games in the end of that run, too, the five teams that the Caps faced having a combined record of 132-94-38 when they skated against Washington (a 94-point pace over 82 games).
What distinguished that five game winning streak going into the bye was the dominance of the Caps in the offensive end of the ice. They scored 25 goals (5.0 per game) and had four multi-goal wins to close the run. They accomplished that with an uncommon efficiency, recording a team shooting percentage of 16.9 percent, the 25 goals coming on 148 shots on goal.
Special teams also were impressive, the power play going 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) and the penalty kill skating off 13 of 14 shorthanded situations (92.9 percent) for a special teams index of 131.3 (sum of power play and penalty killing percentages). The possession numbers were good as well, the shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 of 52.28 well on the good side of 50 percent. Better still, the Caps dominated those numbers in close situations (59.31 percent), but at this level of granularity there is the matter of small population sizes from which to draw conclusions. Still, the signs pointed to a team on a sustained run of success that appeared to be more the product of fine play in wide range of areas one would measure as opposed to chance.
On an individual basis, balance was the word to describe the point production. There were 14 skaters recording at least one of the 25 goals scored in the five-game winning streak heading into the bye, T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson potting four apiece to lead the team. Eighteen different skaters recorded points, four of them averaging more than a point a game: Nicklas Backstrom (3-6-9), Johansson (4-4-8), Brett Connolly (3-4-7), and Oshie (4-2-6). Of the 19 skaters to dress for the Caps in that run, only Dmitry Orlov failed to record a point, but for what it is worth, he was a plus-3 over that span of games. Regarding that plus-minus number, only two Caps finished as poorly as even, and one of them (Zach Sanford) appeared in only one game. Alex Ovechkin was the other, finishing even in five games.
The Caps got next level contributions from sources that might have produced over their pay grade. For example, Jay Beagle had 14 shots on goal in the five games, second only to Ovechkin’s 15. Sanford and Lars Eller had game-winning goals. Daniel Winnik had a shorthanded goal. Six different Caps had at least ten credited hits, the likes of Tom Wilson (18), Brooks Orpik (13, and Alex Ovechkin (11) perhaps expected, but there were also Matt Niskanen (14), Nate Schmidt (12), and Karl Alzner (10) who might not have been expected to show up in such a group.
Then there was the goaltending, which was in retrospect a bit bizarre in the five-game winning streak going into the break. The combined goals against average (1.80) and save percentage (.926) were very good. Breaking it down, Braden Holtby got the call four times and posted a 2.25 goals against average. But the Caps did a fine job in suppressing the volume of shots he faced (84 for an average of 21 per game), which made his .893 save percentage tolerable. Meanwhile, Philipp Grubauer dressed for one game, but he faced almost half the shots Holtby did in that streak (38) in just that one appearance. And, it was a shutout, the Caps beating the Los Angeles Kings, 5-0, despite being outshot, 38-20.
One might look at the five-game winning streak heading into the break and dismiss it as a short-term hot streak on which any number of teams might go over the course of the season. However, it was part of a longer run of good fortune for the Caps that lasted almost two full months, and this portion of it was characterized by shared contributions up and down the lineup. It was a team with a clear sense of momentum about it.
After the six-day hiatus last season, the momentum the Caps had heading into the break came to, if not a screeching halt, then to a quiet end. The 5-0-0 five-game run going into the break turned into a 2-2-1 record in the five games coming out of it:
One would notice in the five games the Caps played coming out of the break, four of them were played on the road, whereas four of the five games preceding the break were played on home ice. And, there is the matter of the quality of competition. The five teams the Caps faced immediately after the break had a combined record similar to that of the five teams they faced heading into the break. Their 149-110-35 combined record was a 94-point pace, just as it was for those five teams the Caps faced before the break (the Detroit Red Wings were the only team Washington faced in both the five games preceding and the five games after the bye).
The things that worked for the Caps leading up to the bye week were left in baggage claim upon their return to D.C. after the break – offense and special teams. The scoring defense and goaltending were not bad, the Caps allowing two more goals in the post-bye five game span (11), and the goaltending was, on the whole, very good once more with a combined 1.99 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.
However, the offense didn’t make it back to Washington in time to resume the schedule after the break. Washington managed only 11 goals in the five games, fewer than half of what they recorded in the five games before the break, despite recording precisely the same number of shots on goal (148).
Then there were special teams, which in no way could have been called “special” in a good way. The Caps were just 2-for-12 on the power play in the five games upon their return (16.7 percent) and killed just seven of ten shorthanded situations (70.0 percent) for an anemic 86.7 on the special teams index, a drop of almost 45 points from what they had before the break. The Caps went from a goal differential of plus-5 before the break (five power play goals scored and one goal scored shorthanded, to one power play goal allowed) to minus-1 in the five games after the break (two power play goals for, three against).
Possession numbers slipped rather significantly, from that 52.28 percent before the break to 46.90 percent in the five games coming out of it. The numbers were worse in tied (44.81 percent) and close situations (46.64) but that small population size issue might apply here as well. That the Caps could still maintain a shots-plus-save percentage value of 1022 (and, indirectly, achieve a record as good as 2-2-1) was a product of a 5-on-5 save percentage better in these five games (.944) than what they had in the five games going into the break (.922).
The goaltending stands out at the individual level for how flipped it was from the five games before the streak. Holtby got three of the starts, but he rose to the occasions nicely, stopping 84 of 88 shots he faced (.955 save percentage, compared to .893 before the break) while posting a 1.30 goals against average on his way to a 2-0-1 record. On the other hand, Philipp Grubauer slipped some, but that was more a case of one bad game. In his two starts he stopped 49 of 55 shots (.891 save percentage, compared to 1.000 before the break on a shutout in his lone appearance) and posted a 3.08 goals against average. However, there was that four goals on 25 shots effort in a 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators in the fifth of the five games the Caps played coming out of the bye.
As for the skaters, the Caps did spread things around, but it is hard to spread 11 goals very far. Eight players shared in those 11 goals scored, Evgeny Kuznetsov leading the team with three and Tom Wilson right behind him with a pair to account for the multiple goal scoring. What the Caps did not get was a goal from a defenseman in those five games, but then again, they had only one in the five games leading up to the break (John Carlson).
Alex Ovechkin had only one goal, that coming on a power play, but that wasn’t the strangest set of number he had coming out of the bye. He had only 11 shots on goal, the same number as Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, and fewer than Kuznetsov (14) and Carlson (20).
Fourteen skaters recorded points in the five games after the break, but what is perhaps more noteworthy is that the Caps employed 21 skaters in those five games (19 in the five games before the break). Three starters for the Caps missed two games apiece – Brooks Orpik, T.J. Oshie, and Matt Niskanen – and Nate Schmidt missed one.
In the end…
If balance was the word associated with momentum for the Caps in the five games before the break, then continuity (or the lack of it) might be associated with the inability to sustain that momentum after the break. Successful runs come to an end, and slumps ensue, but for it to happen to the Caps as abruptly as it did immediately after the break suggests at least the possibility that the break from game action diminished whatever sense of urgency or intensity they had going into it.
Maybe that’s a leap of imagination, given that we have one year’s worth of experience to go on as the Caps head into this year’s break, but there is still an ominous air about it. After all, that 2-2-1 start right out of the blocks after the bye became a sluggish run of 6-6-2 before the Caps righted themselves to finish the regular season with a 10-2-0 record in their last dozen games.
The Caps have not had that extended run of success this season such as that 19-2-1 record they posted in the run-up to last year’s bye week. It gives them a bit less margin for error this time around than last season as they come out the other side. How the Caps come out of the break will be something of which to be mindful, especially with such a light schedule – four games in 18 days – coming out of the break. Momentum lost is momentum hard to regain.