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Did The Caps Flip A Switch?

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Taking a look at how the Capitals are playing at a different pace in the postseason than their regular season might have indicated, and how it’s benefiting them.

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

With the playoffs now eight games old for the Capitals, the sample size for much of their performance data has matured to a point where it’s not completely useless. The eye-test (along with their five victories) tells us that the Capitals have been playing some strong hockey, the unfortunate bit about protecting two-goal leads notwithstanding.

There were some worrisome anecdotes in the regular season that indicated the squad’s regular-season success might have been a lot of smoke and mirrors, not least of which was that they finished dead last in shot generation at five on five, despite having the League-leader in shots. Add that to the fact that their first round draw, the Columbus Blue Jackets, were third in the League in five-on-five shot generation, it seemed like a strong series from Philipp Grubauer was going to be the most likely scenario for the Caps to punch their ticket to the second round.

Not only did the Capitals not get that strong showing from Gru (though they certainly got it from Braden Holtby in relief), they also outshot Columbus at evens...something we wrote off as a near impossibility before the series. Below, let’s look at some underlying numbers across the full field of playoff teams.

On one hand, comparing a mature sample like the regular season directly to a much younger sample is going to breed some volatility, which we see visualized above, but on the other, that’s the nature of the playoffs. We see that the Caps have jumped up to be a break-even possession team through eight games, while their current opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have been sliding the other way.

Breaking possession into it’s components, shot attempts for and shot attempts against, elucidates a little bit more about what’s going on.

Notice that the Capitals have really ticked up the shot generation, but have also experienced an updraft in shots against, though the change in this latter being considerably smaller, which renders the equation as a definite positive for the good guys. The Caps are playing a faster paced game than we saw in the regular season, and it’s serving them well. Conventional wisdom would state that a guy like Andre Burakovsky coming back into the lineup (if it happens at all) might figure into this picture, but a more immediate tactic would be getting speed-demon Jakub Vrana some more ice time.

Drill a bit deeper, and we can see the trickle-down impact of those increased shot rates.

Despite allowing more shot-attempts in the playoffs than they have in the regular season, they’ve done a pretty good job of damage control, as their shot suppression, scoring-chance suppression, and high-danger chance suppression have all improved. But the play has been good on both sides of the ice, as generation in all three of those categories also improved.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, given that the Caps are generally breaking even in shot-share and chance-share, but a team with as much high-end talent and strong special teams play as the Caps has the potential to do quite a lot with break-even five-on-five play.