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The Narrative: Shufflin’, A Must-Win (?), and Special Teams

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Three things we’re talking about today when we’re talking about the Caps

NHL: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. Shufflin’

Having a lot of secondary scoring (and for the Caps, that basically means “anyone other than Alex Ovechkin who scores semi-regularly”) should mean that when a couple of guys aren’t scoring, other guys are, providing a relatively steady flow of offensive production overall. T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom, Brett Connolly, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov all potted between 21 and 25 goals during the regular season, John Carlson, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky each chipped in another dozen (a baker’s dozen for those first two). Add ‘em up and you’re at a bit more than two per game to add to Ovechkin’s production and whatever you get from the rest of the roster. Put another way, the Caps got close to 100 goals from the top line, around 70 from the second line and nearly 50 from the third (including Burakovsky’s contributions there).

That was then, this is now, and through three games, Backstrom has been great (3G, A), Oshie and Wilson each have a goal, and Eller found the empty net to salt away Game 1. That’s six goals from “secondary scorers,” two per game. But one of those came without a goalie in the cage, two more came on the power play (remember those?), and two of the others were top-line tallies (Backstrom and Wilson, both primary-assisted by Ovechkin). To be sure, they all count on the scoreboard. But the point is that the Caps have scored two non-empty net goals in this series by other-than-the-top line (Oshie’s and Brooks Orpik’s). Nothing from the bottom-six, and not enough from the second line. Paging Jake and Conno.

So, as we discussed the other day and on the podcast, it’s time for a shake-up, both up front and on the back end, to try to get anything at all going at fives:

To summarize, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson have swapped spots, as have Andre Burakovsky and Carl Hagelin, while Travis Boyd and Jonas Siegenthaler draw in for Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos, respectively.

It still remains to be seen whether Nick Jensen and John Carlson can be an effective pair (they’ve played to a 39.6 adjusted Corsi-For percentage so far in this series after a 32.7 share in the regular season, which would suggest “no”), but these would generally seem to be steps in the right direction... that won’t matter if the team doesn’t put forth a better effort in Game 4 than they did in Game 3.

2. A Must-Win(?)

At the other end of the rink, the ‘Canes will be without two of their top-six forwards for Game 4 (as they were for most of Game 3):

In relative terms, that would be like the Caps losing, say, Wilson and Oshie. Ouch. Those are two tough dudes to be without for a non-must-win must-win:

Putting aside the obvious jokes about the Caps’ history when leading a series 3-1, Brind’Amour’s not wrong - per WhoWins, NHL clubs without home ice advantage to start a series that turn best-of-seven series into best-of-threes advance 40.6 percent of the time (104-152); when those teams find themselves down 1-3, that number drops to 7.7 percent (15-179). (That also means that, regardless of tonight’s outcome, the Caps will still be statistical favorites to advance based on these historicals, of course.)

Brind’Amour is painting this as “a must game” not because he knows the odds (he might, though he strikes me as more of a Han Solo here... which I suppose would make Eric Tulsky Carolina’s C-3PO), but because he needs his team to play with as much intensity and determination as they did in Game 3. Rallying around two downed teammates in a “must-win”... if the Caps can’t come close to matching Carolina’s effort in Game 4 (as they didn’t in Game 3), this series will likely head back to D.C. knotted at two games apiece.

3. Special Teams

Lest you think the Caps’ only problem is their five-on-five play, after a strong Game 1 playing both with the extra man (2-for-4 on the power play) and down one (3-for-3 on the penalty kill), the Caps have hit the skids, going 0-for-8 on the PP since (0-for-10 overall since that second PPG in Game 1) and just 7-for-10 shorthanded (though the 1:07 of 3-on-5 time they killed in Game 2 is certainly noteworthy).

Over the last two games, the Caps’ power play as an expected-Goals For (xGF) of 2.28 (0.88 in Game 2, 1.40 in Game 3), but nothing to show for it; the Canes’ 5-on-4 unit has an xGF of 1.80 (0.71 and 1.09), and has potted three goals. In other words, the expected goals model for the last two games would have the Caps up half a goal, while reality (which is where these things are still measured) has the Caps down three.

So what’s the deal? Bad luck? Bad Caps special teams? Let’s take a look...

Here are unblocked shot attempt heat maps of the Caps’ power-play over the three games:

via NaturalStatTrick

Note the difference scales on the color ranges. Note also that a lot of Alex Ovechkin’s shots from the office aren’t considered “high-danger scoring chances” (just two of his 19 shot attempts on the power play through three games have been characterized as such), which... well, yeah - they’re pretty dangerous. Those heat maps don’t look terrible. And they’re not:

via Natural Stat Trick

The Caps are above their season averages across-the-board (but Game 2 stunk). To put those numbers in some perspective, the Caps’ rates in Games 1 and 3 are higher than (or very close to it) the rates that any teams posted during the regular season, in some cases by a lot. Your eyes may tell you otherwise, and the zone entries have been problematic, but the Caps’ power play isn’t far from where it needs to be. Even without tweaks, the production should certainly return if they do what they did in Games 1 and 3.

As for the penalty kill, let’s go through the same exercise:

via Natural Stat Trick

That, friends, is a good look (note: all of this is 4-on-5 only, excluding that 3-on-5 kill). And the numbers?

via Natural Stat Trick

More or less in line with the regular season, on whole, though volume is up a tick, even if the quality of those shots isn’t (Carolina Hurricanes hockey!), which you can see a bit in the heat maps (and the fact that none of the three ‘Canes power-play goals has been categorized as “high-danger”; both Caps goals are, for what it’s worth).

Bottom line: the Caps’ special teams results have taken a turn for the worse since Game 1, but the underlying play, overall, is still pretty encouraging. Hopefully the results will start to reflect that real soon.