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Anatomy of a Winning Streak

Taking a closer look at the Caps’ recent seven-game winning streak

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The epic comeback win by the Anaheim Ducks over the weekend brought a sudden and painful end to the Caps’ win streak, snapping the run at seven games and wrapping up a highly successful two-week span for the good guys.

While the streak may have come to a somewhat ignominious end, it doesn’t erase all the good that came out of it or the positive things on which the team can build going forward. After all, it was the longest streak they’ve had since the 2016-17 season, when they racked up nine straight wins, and the second-longest in the last five seasons (with another nine-game stretch in mid-December of 2015.

So let’s dig a little deeper into this recent stretch of success and see just what it was made of.

Climbing the Ladder

Prior to the start of this streak, the Capitals had spent the better part of the season’s first six weeks sleepwalking their way to mediocrity, and by mid-November found themselves in a somewhat treacherous position in the standings. Sporting a less-than-stellar record of 9-7-, the Caps were clinging to third place in the Metropolitan and sat two points off the second Wild Card spot.

By the time the Ducks brought the streak to an end, however, the Caps had moved into sole possession of first in the Division, one point ahead of Columbus, and had given themselves a bit of breathing room for playoff positioning with a four-point lead on the rest of the Metro and the Wild Card.

A Team Game

Despite not playing their best hockey on a nightly basis to open the season, the Caps had stayed in the hunt thanks to their potent offense and killer power play, and occasionally broke out that start-to-finish team game that gave us a glimpse of what this team had become by the end of the postseason. But they were constantly being undone by occasionally leaky goaltending and frequently leaky penalty-killing, along with some overall sloppy play that cost them through the first 19 games.

That’s not to say that they were perfect during this winning streak, of course – there were stumbles here and there, particularly in the first two games when they had to claw their way back to overtime wins against Colorado and Montreal. They consistently gave up the first goal of the game, hardly a recipe for long-term success (although for what it’s worth, they’ve been one of the better teams at bouncing back from that over the past five seasons), and opened the scoring just twice in the seven games.

They were also outshot by a healthy margin over the streak, putting 193 shots on opposing goalies compared to the 240 absorbed by Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley. Only once in the seven games did they finish with a positive SAT differential, getting the edge in attempts on the Rangers by 10 but otherwise being roughly even or falling behind on a nightly basis.

But there was also a lot to like about how the team started to find its legs over the course of this seven-game stretch. Unsurprisingly, offense was at the heart of it all, outscoring teams 30-16 and putting up at least four goals in five of the seven wins; perhaps more surprising was the fact that most of that damage was done at even strength, with the Caps putting up 24 goals to opponents’ 14.

Special teams certainly played a role in this streak, as well – although perhaps not in the way one might expect. Sure, the power play still worked, checking in with five power-play goals over that span, but it was the penalty kill finally starting to click (or at least reflecting what the underlying numbers were already showing) that was a major contributor to the run.

The Caps gave up just one power-play goal in seven games, that goal being scored in the second period of Game 2 against Montreal; they then went on a run of 19 consecutive penalties killed over the rest of the winning streak, bringing their penalty-kill effectiveness up from 72.5% at the start of the streak to a more palatable 76.8%. Most impressive were a couple of lengthy kills on penalties taken by two of their top penalty-killing forwards – a double-minor issued to Lars Eller in that same Montreal game, and Tom Wilson’s major for his check on New Jersey’s Brett Seney.

All of those elements came together to make the Caps one of the hottest teams in the League over the last two weeks. Only Buffalo had more points than the Caps’ 14 over that span, racking up 15 points in one more game played but matching them in wins, and only Colorado had as many regulation losses - aka zero - over that same span.

Stars and Standouts

So who led the way on an individual level? To some extent, everyone had their role in the winning streak – and that’s a big reason why it lasted so long, with the team getting contributions up and down the lineup.

Still, there were some who rose above the packs, suspects both usual and… perhaps not so much.

We and many others have talked before about the impact Tom Wilson has had on the team since returning from his lengthy suspension on November 12. And while he’s not a savior and definitely isn’t the only reason the team has gotten suddenly hot, his return – both in his individual contributions and his impact on the rest of the lineup – has been without a doubt one of the driving forces behind it.

Oh, and those individual contributions for #43 are nothing to sneeze at. Over the past seven games, Wilson has racked up six goals and 12 points, with goals in five straight wins (and six straight games including Sunday’s loss). This somewhat surprising offensive explosion not only puts him on pace to crush his career numbers across the board - hell, it’s got him on pace to match some of Ovechkin’s career highs - but has also helped fill the void left by key absences like T.J. Oshie and, until recently, Evgeny Kuznetsov.

He hasn’t been alone, though; this has been a total team effort, and it shows when you break down the individual numbers:

  • In the category of least-surprising stat ever, Alex Ovechkin led the way over the last seven games with seven goals (six of which were scored at even strength), 24 hits, and 26 shots on net, and had goals in each of the last four
  • Wilson (6-6-12) and Nicklas Backstrom (5-7-12) led the team in overall scoring, with Backstrom picking up his second-career hat trick in the win over New Jersey
  • John Carlson’s nine helpers were tops among all Caps and kept him right in the mix among the League’s highest-scoring blueliners
  • Carlson also led the way in ice time, playing an average of 24:36 during the streak
  • There were 17 multi-point performances over the seven-game span: Wilson (4), Ovechkin (3), Backstrom (3), Vrana (2), Carlson (2), and Kempny/Orlov/Connolly (1)
  • Ovechkin and Wilson both put up at least a point in each of the seven games; Backstrom and Carlson were right behind with points in six of seven 6 of 7, followed by Kempny (five of seven) and Eller (four of seven)
  • Eight different players had at least two goals during the streak
  • Backstrom, Wilson, and Carlson picked up three power-play points apiece, with six 6 others checking in with one point with the extra man
  • The only active player without a point during the streak was Jonas Siegenthaler, who dressed for just one game

Net Positive

Not to be overlooked in all of this was the work of the goaltenders, who were stellar over this seven-game stretch. Between Holtby and Copley, there was only one sub-.900 sv% outing - and that was Copley’s shortened start against the Habs, when he played just over one period (21:35) before being relieved by Holtby (who then went 22-for-22 in the remaining 41:59 of regulation and overtime).

It’s not like the team in front of them made it particularly easy, either. In six of the seven wins, the Caps’ goalie of choice faced down at least 30 shots - and in four of those seven, they made at least 30 saves (which doesn’t include a combined 40-save effort against the Habs).

Time for a New One

And so it’s come to an end, as all good things do; even in their loss on Sunday there were remnants of what had made them successful up to that point, and the end of one streak just means it’s time to get a new one started.

They’ll get a chance to do so when they face off against their fellow Stanley Cup Finalists in Vegas... a city in which they’ve certainly tasted victory before.