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January Losses on a May Ledger

On the danger of letting someone else feast on your table scraps

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NHL: JAN 19 Capitals at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The start to the abbreviated 2021 NHL season was always going to be a challenge for the Washington Capitals. A new head coach, a handful of new players (including one-third of the blueline), and a new number one (and number two) goalie would be hard enough to integrate with a normal training camp, preseason games and a typical schedule that allows for practices.

Instead, Peter Laviolette’s Caps have been putting the plane together while barreling down the runway for takeoff, with a short camp, no exhibition games and four road games in six nights. And they’ve handled it... okay. The standings would certainly be strong evidence of that, as the Caps have captured six of a possible eight points. They haven’t yet trailed at the end of sixty minutes (a bad time at which to be trailing) and, in fact, have spent more time at five-on-five with a lead than any team in hockey, having only trailed for a total of 11:45, all after falling behind early in Sunday’s matinee in Pittsburgh. Their adjusted Corsi-For percentage is a middle-of-the-pack 50.4, and their special teams have been fine (last night’s efforts notwithstanding).

But here’s the thing - in a condensed schedule comprised entirely of intra-divisional match-ups, teams can ill-afford to hand opponents points like the Caps did in Pittsburgh. Yes, the Caps took two points home with them from Western Pennsylvania. But they left two and, perhaps more importantly, allowed the Penguins to snag four. And while that doesn’t necessarily sound like an unreasonable outcome - the Pens are, after all, a perennial contender catching the Caps on the back end of that season-opening road trip - it’s more the how than the what that’s concerning. Here, via Money Puck, are the in-game win probabilities for the two games in Pittsburgh:

The Caps’ win probability peaked around 72 percent midway through Sunday’s game and topped 92 percent when they headed to a two-man advantage up two goals late in the second period on Tuesday night.

Look, blown leads happen. And sure, the Caps already have twice as many losses when leading after one period as they did in the 82-game season in which they won the Cup. But you can’t lose a game when leading after 20 minutes if you don’t have a lead after 20 minutes, so there’s that.

Point being, there’s a lot that the Caps need to clean up in their game, and they might well do just that. That’s no surprise at all and no reason to panic. But in a division in which razor-thin margins are likely to determine who’s in and who’s out come playoff time, leaving points on the table is compounded by the fact that a rival is scooping them right up. Put another way, the Caps definitely should have gained two points on the Penguins last night and likely four over the two-game set.

Instead, they lost one last night and two points overall (with Pittsburgh gaining four to Washington’s two). They left two points on the table, and allowed the Pens to snag four. It’s not hard to imagine that those January growing-pain swings could prove costly come May.