1. Stayin’ Alive
For the first ten minutes or so of Tuesday night’s Game 4 between the Caps and Isles, everything looked more or less as it had for much of the 185 or so minutes that preceded it.
And then... it didn’t.
The Caps were dominated in possession right off the bat (six minutes into the game, shot attempts were 16-1 in New York’s favor), took a penalty in the game’s first minute (Brenden Dillon has never met a penalty he wouldn’t take) and found themselves down 2-0 before the first period was half over.
But then... something changed. Was it something Todd Reirden said during his timeout? The sudden realization that they were less than 24 hours away from changing diapers if the game didn’t turn around? Pride?
Whatever it was, momentum slowly but surely started to turn and snowball:
Between the Isles’ second goal and their last gasp attempts to tie the game, the Caps outshot New York by more than 30 attempts, including what was easily the most puck-dominant shift and stretch the club has had since... well, it’s been a while (you can see that span after the Islanders’ second second-period power play above, 2:05 in which the Caps hemmed the Isles into their own zone, not allowing a line change and firing six shot attempts, four on-goal).
The funny thing is, the Caps blew a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage, anecdotally as much of a death knell as walking the lead-off batter in baseball. But that’s when Evgeny Kuznetsov showed up:
Soon thereafter, The Captain did what The Captain does:
... and again:
A big penalty kill and a handful of big saves later, Braden Holtby had his 50th career playoff win and the faintest glimmer of hope that the Caps had in this series got just a little brighter.
The second and third periods of Game 4 were the first in which the Caps out-shot (score- and venue-adjusted) the Isles at five-on-five since the first period of the entire series. You hear a lot about how “a team’s best players have to be its best players” this time of year, and on Tuesday night, they were: Alex Ovechkin scored twice, Kuznetsov started things off, and Holtby made the stops he had to make (interestingly enough, those were the top-three finishers in the 2018 Conn Smythe voting). John Carlson added another couple of assists for good measure.
But it wasn’t just the big guns firing - the second line of Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie outshot (attempts) the Isles 14-1 at five-on-five with a 6-0 shot (on goal) and scoring chance edge (Eller on his own pressed a mammoth 20-1 attempt and 10-0 chance advantage, 17-1/9-0 with Vrana); rearguards Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, Brenden Dillon and Radko Gudas were all over 60% in shot attempts, as were fourth-liners Garnet Hathaway and Richard Panik. This was the type of effort and execution Caps fans have been waiting for since the club arrived in Toronto (and, truthfully, long before that). And they could’ve easily packed it in at 0-2 and slept in their own beds tonight. Remember that last part when anyone spews some bullshit narrative about them not wanting to be in the bubble any more.
Alex Ovechkin scored his 12th and 13th career goals in games where the @Capitals faced elimination.@ovi8 now trails only five skaters for the most career goals when facing elimination in NHL history. #NHLStats #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/LS4zpsyGvp— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) August 19, 2020
Anyway, the Caps are now dead even with the Isles in shot attempts for the series and within spitting distance at fives. They’re a Vrana breakaway away or a Braden Holtby softy from being tied in the series, perhaps both of those away from being up 3-1.
But they’re not up 3-1. They’re not tied. They’re still in a huge hole with a hell of a lot of work to do. Barry Trotz’s Islanders will respond in Game 5. Todd Reirden’s Caps had best be ready.
2. P.K. Super
They say that practice makes perfect, which must be why the Caps’ penalty kill has been so darn good in the post-season... because they sure have had a hell of a lot of practice.
Since the first round began, no team has been shorthanded more frequently than the Caps (Calgary also has had 19 penalty kills, but they’ve played one more game). That’s 4.75 times shorthanded per game, including five times in Game 4. Tom Wilson’s six minor penalties (including a not-great hit from behind last night) lead the League, which apparently made regular-season penalty king Brenden Dillon jealous enough to commit two of his own on Tuesday evening.
The good news is that the penalty kill has been terrific, killing off 18 of those 19 disadvantages after going a perfect 8-for-8 in the round robin. The bad news is that regression is a thing that exists and you can only get away with lack of discipline like this for so long. Put another way, the Isles have an expected goals-for of 3.00 at 5-on-4 so far in the series and have only scored one (the Caps, on the other hand, have an xGF of 2.83 and have potted four, though xGF clearly expects less from Alex Ovechkin than the rest of us). At some point, opportunity is going to translate into results, so the Caps would be wise to limit those opportunities.
3. Depth Charge
Alex Ovechkin has four goals in this series. Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie have two each. The rest of the team has none.
That’s no goals on 64 shots on goal which, if my math is right, works out to a shooting percentage of zero-point-zero.
Including the round robin, Caps individual goal-scoring versus expectations looks like this (you’re looking at the second column here):
For Travis Boyd, that’s one goal during the round robin, and that one goal greatly exceeds his expected goal total. Oshie’s four goals are nearly twice what we’d expect based on the shots he’s taken. Ovechkin’s four is a bit more than the model would expect (though, again, the model doesn’t take into account who the shooter is and the 700-plus goals he’s scored in the past). Everyone else is performing to or below expectations, with an unsurprising name at the bottom.
Not much more to say on this point, other than to state the obvious: it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Caps can advance without getting some goal-scoring from its other top-six 20-goal guys (Wilson and Vrana), theoretical skill guys (Lars Eller, Ilya Kovalchuk and Panik), depth forwards (Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and Hershey Bear du jour) and/or anyone on the blueline.