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Chances are the Caps’ Chances are Awfully Good

A look at a new wrinkle in the whole “the Caps are exceeding expectations again” arsenal

Arizona Coyotes v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Through 19 games, the Washington Capitals have rolled to an 11-3-5 record. Both their points percentage (.711) and goal differential (plus-20) are good for fourth-best on the circuit, the latter contributing to the former, of course, and being the product of five-on-five scoreboard domination. To wit, the Caps have outscored opponents at five by, you guessed it, 20 goals (47-27).

The underlying numbers of that differential, for the most part, don’t really align with the sort of edge that the Caps have had thus far; they’re on the right side of break-even in all of the key stats - shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, etc. - but not wildly so. In fact, their expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) at fives is a good-not-exceptional 52.3 percent, more than ten percentage points south of their actual goals-for percentage.

That, in and of itself, isn’t a particularly novel development for the Caps - they have consistently outscored their expected rates, to the point that the word “expected” when applied to them is really being stretched to the limits of its common usage. And they’ve usually ridden elite finishing talent to that result. Here’s how they’ve shaken out over the past handful of years in terms of their rank in five-on-five shooting percentage, scoring chance shooting percentage and high-danger scoring chance shooting percentage:

data via NST

Three different coaches with similar results: an offense making the most of its chances; that’s what consistently elite finishing talent looks like, and it’s how you go from the image below on the left (a below-average offense) to the one on the right (that exceeds expected goals by 8-plus percent):

via HockeyViz

Nineteen games is a small sample, of course, but the story has been more or less the same over the bulk of the Alex Ovechkin Era. Except this year, they seem to be adding another wrinkle: getting similarly impressive performances on five-on-five scoring chances from their goaltenders.

Load up the “small sample” caveats, but the Caps currently sit eighth on the circuit in overall five-on-five save percentage and high-danger save percentage, and third in five-on-five scoring chance save percentage. The last time the Caps finished in the top-ten in five-on-five save percentage or scoring chance save percentage at fives was 2016-17, thanks to the Vezina Trophy runner-up and his understudy.

And Ilya Samsonov? He has the second-highest save percentage in the League on high-plus-medium danger shots (maybe a rough proxy for scoring chances) at fives (minimum 200 minutes), stopping 89.1 percent (41 of 46) of high-danger shots and a League-leading 97.8 percent (44 of 45) of medium-danger shots he’s faced. (This is where we casually mention that he has a League-worst .912 save percentage on low-danger shots.)

Who knows how predictive this start will be, but it’s how you go from the image below on the left (a well above-average defense) to the one on the right (that has allowed 11-plus percent fewer goals than expected):

via HockeyViz

Should we expect some regression here? Absolutely. But what if...

The bottom line here is that the Caps’ formula for success remains a simple one (conceptually, that is): suppress shots, rely on consistently elite finishing talent and get average goaltending. But if that last piece is going to somehow get to “reliably above-average,” well, then, it’ll be time for everyone to adjust their expectations, however you want to use that word.