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Washington Capitals: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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To mix metaphors, we compare the best of times and the worst of times for the Caps this season as they approach the new postseason.

Detroit Red Wings v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The National Hockey League has embarked on journey it has never taken before, restarting a season that had largely been completed, and although the destination remains the same, the path is fraught with uncertainty. It is hard to predict or imagine which, if any of the 24 teams about to resume their season will find the magic they had at one point over the first five months, or after a five month hiatus discover a level of play they were unable to produce before “the pause” interrupted their season.

And that brings us to the Washington Capitals. As much, if not more than any other team, there was a “Jekyll and Hyde” quality about this year’s squad, one that performed sublimely over a 42-game stretch from mid-October to the bye/All-Star Game break in late January, but also one that performed dismally (by its standards) after the bye/All-Star Game break. One wonders which team will show up when play resumes on August 3rd. But just how different were these two teams? Let’s start with “Dr. Jekyll.”

From October 16th through January 18th, when the Caps played their last game before the bye/All-Star Game break, they had a record of 30-9-3. They were the only team with 30 wins over that span (the St. Louis Blues had 27), and they were the only team with more than 60 standings points (63 in 42 games; the Blues had 60 in 43 contests).

After the bye/All-Star Game break, the Caps turned into a “Mr. Hyde,” a different team, and not in a good way. Their 8-9-3 record from January 27th to the pause was tied for 22nd in the league in standings points (19) over that period. Only the Florida Panthers and the New York Islanders among teams advancing to the Stanley Cup tournament had fewer standings points (17 apiece). How could this be the same team? Was it a fluke? Was if just a case of the hot and cold that teams experience in a season? Let us take a look at the profiles of “Jekyll and Hyde” in these two spans of games:

If you start at the top end, the 100,000-foot level, you might be thinking no, it was not a fluke. The Caps lost more than half a goal per game on offense and took on almost three-quarters of a goal allowed per game on defense. Looking at it another way, the Caps went from being a dominating team (second in goal-per-game differential) to a dominated team (bottom ten in goal-per-game differential). The outputs deteriorated at both ends of the ice, leading to bad outcomes (wins and losses).

Drill down a bit more, and the scoring results are the expected product of deteriorating efficiency at both ends of the ice. Shooting percentage was down in the offensive end, but the slide was not as steep as at the other end, where 5-on-5 save percentage just cratered, by ranking (from 13th to 29th in the league). The result was that the Caps went from 2nd to 21st in shooting-plus-save percentage.

Special teams were something of a mixed bag. The power play has been something of an issue in an underperforming way most of the season. It was not particularly impressive in their October-to-January run (19.9 percent overall/14.5 percent net of shorthanded goals allowed), but it got worse in the post-bye/All-Star Game period (17.2 percent/13.8 percent). The real key on special teams was the deterioration of the penalty kill. What had been a top-ten PK in the October-to-January span (84.3 percent overall/86.3 percent net of shorthanded goals scored).

It did not help special teams that the Caps net penalties (drawn versus taken) per 60 minutes slipped in the post-bye/All-Star Game period. Not that it was impressive before, but what was already a bottom-ten performance (-0.21/24th) dropped even further (-0.64/27th).

The wide-spread drop in performance across a range of statistical categories ended up being reflected in the Caps unable, or at least less able, to hold leads. In the October-to-January period they had the best record in the league when scoring first in games (18-0-1/.947 winning percentage). After the break, the Caps went 4-3-2 (.444 winning percentage/28th). It was not much better in games in which the Caps trailed first, going from being the third-ranked team in the league (12-9-2/.522) to being tied for 16th in the league (4-6-1/.364).

Perhaps worse, the Caps were poor finishers. After going 20-0-1 (.952 winning percentage), the second-best record in the league when leading after two periods in the October-to-January run, they fell to a 5-1-0 record (.833/tied for 20th) in the post-break period. The record was not bad of itself, but the six instances of carrying a lead into the third period in 20 games was disturbing.

Individually, the Caps were a relatively balanced group of goal scorers in their fine October-to-January run, even accounting for the out-sized production of Alex Ovechkin. With 29 goals, Ovechkin accounted for 19 percent of the team’s total of 152 goals over the period. However, while his 0.69 goals per game were impressive, so too were the contributions of three other Caps. Jakub Vrana posted 20 goals in that span (0.48 goals/game; 13 percent of the team total), while both Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie posted 14 goals (0.33 per game; 9 percent of the team total). Tom Wilson almost cracked the 0.30 goals per game level with 12 goals in 41 games, Nicklas Backstrom (despite missing eight of the 42 games in this stretch) averaged almost a quarter-goal-per-game, and John Carlson had 11 goals in 42 games to lead the defensemen.

The team production in goals dropped off by more than half a goal per game between the October-to-January run (3.62) and the post bye/All-Star Game break (3.10). Most of the drop-off can be attributed to three players. Carlson’s goals per game dropped from 0.26 to 0.10 between the two groups of games. Given his position, this would not be as much of a problem if his point per game remained consistent, but here he was down as well, dropping from 1.17 points per game in the earlier stretch to 0.75 leading up to the pause.

The more troublesome drop-offs were those of Kuznetsov and Vrana. Kuznetsov’s goal production per game was halved in the post-bye/All-Star Game break (from 0.33 per game to 0.16 per game), while Vrana’s dropped by more than two-thirds (from 0.48 per game to 0.15). Kuznetsov might have mitigated his drop in goal scoring by maintaining or picking up his assist production, but this dropped off as well, from 0.55 assists per game to 0.41.

Vrana has to be a goal scorer for this team. In the 30-9-3 October-to-January run, he was that – 20 goals in 42 games. This might have been a bit much to sustain, given that his career high in goals, set last season, was 24 in 82 games. The drop-off, though (three goals in 20 games), was significant, translating to a 12 goals-per-82 game pace.

The goal scoring rate drop-off of Nicklas Backstrom was not as precipitous as that of Kuznetsov or Vrana (down about a third, from 0.24 to 0.15 goals per game), but on a team where offense dropped by 14 percent from one span of games to the other, it cannot go by without notice.

Goaltending was, as one might expect, the victim of a significant drop-off in performance. But there was an odd “growing pains” aspect to it. Braden Holtby had a rather unremarkable record in the October-to-January run, posting a fine 17-8-2 win-loss record, but recording a 2.90 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. Those numbers ranked 23rd in both categories among 32 goalies with at least 1,200 minutes played. Those numbers deteriorated in the post-bye/All-Star Game break period – a 3.15 goals against average (27th of 31 goalies with at least 600 minutes) and .898 save percentage (29th in that group). It was not so much that his even strength save percentage dropped (from .913 in the earlier period to .910 in the latter), his save percentage against power plays took a hit, dropping from .870 to .815.

The “growing pains” part of this was the comparison of rookie Ilya Samsonov’s early performance to that of his post-bye/All-Star Game performance. From October 16th through January 18th, Samsonov was brilliant: 13-1-1, 2.18 goals against average, .924 save percentage, and a shutout. Over that period, he was second in wins among rookie goalies with at least 100 minutes played, second in goals against average, fifth in save percentage, and he was one of only four rookies to post at least one shutout. His even strength save percentage of .936 was second among rookies and sixth among all goalies playing in at least 15 games over that period.

Then came the break. Samsonov won his first game out of the break, stopping 25 of 28 shots in a 5-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on January 31st. After that, things took a turn. He went into the break having lost all five of his decisions (0-4-1, one no-decision, in six games) with a 4.34 goals against average and a .869 save percentage. As good as Samsonov was before the break, he was quite a bit less so after, or so his numbers suggested.

As the Capitals prepare to resume play in the re-formatted postseason, it is hard to predict what sort of team will emerge from the 147-day hiatus between their last regular season game and the first game of their round-robin schedule. One might think that coming out of the break, the Caps will be rejuvenated and refreshed. Well, that did not seem to work altogether well when they came out of the bye/All-Star Game break that lasted eight days. They might have been able to more completely incorporate new assets such as forward Ilya Kovalchuk and defenseman Brenden Dillion. That remains an unknown.

The offense needs to improve – more balance, more production from the likes of Evgeny Kuznertsov and Jakub Vrana (among others) – but the defense needs to improve even more. The Caps were entirely too leaky in the post-bye/All-Star break period. Whether that was a product of poor defensive play, poor goaltending, or both, allowing something north of three goals per game could make for a short postseason for this team. The nature of performance in the post-bye/All-Star Game period suggest that it is not one area that needs correction by the Caps. This is more an “everyone dig deep and do better” sort of situation.

Whatever it is, the Caps had better find their “Dr. Jekyll” of good and intelligent play quickly, because come August 3rd, there will be no place to “Hyde.”