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The Caps’ Play is Poor and We’re Gonna Talk About It

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The Caps slide continues, and we peek under the hood to see just how bad it’s been.

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, on National Television, in a matchup with pivotal implications for the Metropolitan Division title race, the Caps played a poor game in front of the home crowd and saw their division lead over the Flyers dwindle to one point. It was the team’s seventh loss in ten games (a stretch of games that started, incidentally, by getting a 7-2 beatdown from these same Flyers). They then followed that dismal showing by allowing Mika Zibanajed’s five-goal performance to lead the Rangers to an overtime victory the next night — and that’s only the latest installment in a stretch of poor play whose life is now approaching two and a half months.

We know the results over that period haven’t been anywhere near what the organization expects from itself, but a stellar start to the season is, for better or for worse, keeping the situation from becoming too dire. Heading into last night’s tilt, Micah Blake McCurdy’s projections still had the Caps finishing the year with 105 points and a 99.7% chance of making the playoffs.

That means the Caps have the good fortune of not living and dying with the outcome of every game, and instead being able to focus on what’s going on under the hood. We know something is wrong with team defense — it doesn’t take a brain genius to see the quality and quantity (and the quantity of quality) chances allowed each game is untenable for a team that expects to win games, but if you’ve watched the Caps through the Ovechkin-era, you’ve spent plenty of hours with some teams that, uh, didn’t prioritize keeping the puck out of their own net. So where does this squad stack up?

Take a look, using a thirty-game rolling window. For reference, thirty games ago was a 7-3 trouncing at the hands of the Boston Bruins two days before Christmas.

This helps our heads understand what our hearts are already telling us: the defense is a mess. It is, frankly, as bad as it’s ever been as measured by actual goals allowed. Even using expected goals, which nominally controls for some of the noise in the data, paints an ugly picture. The dotted line here represents league average expected goals each year, and while that has risen somewhat over the years, it’s not particularly exculpatory for our heroes. It’s been close to fourteen years since the Caps had a run of defensive play this poor.

But what about the other side of the coin. These guys are still lighting the lamp in their own right, right?

Offensively, things look pretty good. Even acknowledging that scoring is up league-wide since Reirden took the helm, the team’s expected offensive production has been as good or better than any of the teams preceding it, save for the Bruce Boudreau squads of yore. The Caps have also thoroughly outperformed their expected goals numbers under Reirden, but that should come as no surprise to our loyal readers.

Now let’s take both sides of the five-on-five equation, and look at it to get a sense of this team’s current profile of play.

The Caps are playing a wide-open style of game that, beneath the hood, most closely resembles those moments when the Young Guns teams of the late ‘00s were at their most, um, defensively ambivalent. Those teams were able to get away with it to an extent. These guys — as evinced by the evaporation of their division lead in the standings — cannot.

We’ve seen the Caps win loads of hockey games on the strength of their percentages; they’ve got elite shooters and a good talent in net. Calming their game down to a more moderate pace is probably a good objective for this squad, for starters.

We’ve harped on the defensive performance in the recent past, we’ve made our best effort at pointing an educated finger, and we’ve tried to figure out what the hell is going on with the power play, but the reality is there isn’t going to be an easy fix for issues as fundamentally entrenched into the Caps’ game, and apparent coaching philosophy, as the ones they’re having now.

Meaningful systemic change, particularly around how the Caps defend their own zone and then how to get back out of it once they successfully accomplish that, needs to happen and it needs to happen over the course of the next month.

Because if it doesn’t, it’s most likely going to happen over the summer, on the heels of a second straight early playoff exit, and perhaps executed by some new (or not so new) faces.