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The Caps and Blown Leads: It’s Probably Not What You Think

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A look at the root of the Caps’ problems when playing from ahead

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals have played 25 games so far this season and have surrendered leads in 15 of them. On the plus side, getting leads in the first place is nice, and they’ve won eight of those games (including last night’s heart-stopper against the Devils) and grabbed a point in three others. However, their .545 win percentage when leading after one period is 6th-lowest in the League, and this season perhaps more than any other, teams simply can’t afford to be leaving points on the table against teams they’re fighting for a playoff spot - of their seven losses in games they’ve led, four have come against Pittsburgh.

So besides the anecdotal miscues that are fresh in our minds (those “big mistakes”), what are the Caps doing so differently when they’re leading from what they’re doing when they’re tied? The answer might surprise you.

First off, the high-level results. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Caps have the third-lowest goals-against per 60 when tied at five-on-five (1.54) and the 14th-best GF/60 (2.37), fueled by the League’s second-best save percentage (.947) and 11th-best shooting percentage (8.4). But give them a lead and that GA/60 balloons to 3.59 - more than double! - and the GF/60 goes up a tick, too, to 2.62, thanks to an 11.2 Sh% (5th).

Since the offense is actually improving with the lead, let’s focus on the defense. Here’s a look at a handful of five-on-five shot metrics in the two game states (tied and leading):

via Nat Stat Trick

Raise your hand if you saw that coming.

Liar.

You probably see where this is headed (and might have noticed a number conspicuously missing from that “high-level results” paragraph). The rate at which the Caps are allowing shots and chances is shockingly similar when they’re leading to when they’re tied. Yet the goals allowed is significantly higher. Which means...

Yep. The Caps have the worst save percentage in the NHL when playing with the lead, a woeful .874 at five-on-five and .862 in all situations.

Of the 49 goalies in the League who have played 90+ minutes of 5v5 hockey with a lead, Vitek Vanecek is 48th in save percentage in those situations (.879; 44th in low-danger save percentage, 45th in middle-danger, 36th in high-danger). Drop that to minimum to 80 minutes and he’s 50th of 55 goalies overall... and Ilya Samsonov is 53rd (.844). (Craig Anderson, it should be noted, has stopped both five-on-five shots he’s faced while leading, so they may want to keep him loose in the bullpen to closeout games.)

It’s a curious split for Vanecek, who is fifth in the League in five-on-five save percentage among 49 netminders with 125 minutes with a .955 mark (second among goalies with 235-plus minutes). Of that group, Vanecek is seventh in combined low- and medium-danger save percentage, having stopped 136 of 139 shots of those types (in far-and-away the most shots faced - Andrei Vasilevskiy is second at 103-for-105 and no other goalie is above 75 shots). But in his “while leading” cohort, Vanecek is second-to-last (Carey Price is DFL), saving just 116 of 128 shots, including just 82 of 86 low-danger shots.

When teams get in the habit of blowing leads as the Caps have, there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the guy behind the bench on down. But at some point, they also need to get some stops to preserve those leads, and they haven’t gotten nearly enough of those (particularly in light of the saves they have gotten when tied). Until that changes, no lead the Caps take will be safe, no matter how well the rest of the team is executing the coach’s plans.