This was supposed to be the year the Washington Capitals struggle to make the playoffs.
Of course, that was also the case last year. And the year before. And maybe even the year before that. And in each of those years, not only did the Caps indeed qualify for the postseason, but they won their division, something they’ve done in each of the last five years now and ten of the last 13.
And here they are at the outset of this crazy season’s second half sitting atop the MassMutual East Division, with a two-in-five chance of staying there and a 93 percent likelihood of playing hockey beyond the last day of the regular season, according to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model:
Of course, this certainly could still be the year the Washington Capitals struggle to make the playoffs - they have a relatively tough remaining schedule, and with injuries, suspensions, COVID-related absences, a new coach, limited practice time, etc., this season certainly could be fairly characterized as a “struggle” regardless of the result.
But so far, so good, especially relative to expectations.
“I can’t say I know the end for Washington or when it’s coming,” Luszczyszyn wrote in his epic season preview, “but it feels like it’s a lot sooner than people recognize. This might just be the last year that the Capitals are a playoff team, if they get there at all.”
He had the Caps (who currently have 42 points with 27 games remaining) pegged for 63.7 points and a 58 percent chance to make the playoffs (with a nine percent chance to win the East).
And that was more or less the consensus among the folks who undertook the daunting task of trying to statistically model this unique season. MoneyPuck gave the Caps a nice 69.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. EvolvingWild had the Caps at 66 points and 64.8 percent likely to qualify for the tourney. HockeyViz projected 61.1 points and an even 50 percent coin-flip to finish in the division’s top four. TopDownHockey had ‘em at 62 points and 55 percent to make the postseason. JFresh pegged the Caps for 69 points and a second-place finish in the East.
You get the point - the statistical models underestimated the Caps (once again):
These models aren’t proving to be wrong, per se - the Caps’ most predictive underlying metrics, in aggregate, aren’t going to blow anyone’s doors off (even if they’ve been much better over the last month or so), and they’re not going to shoot 11 percent at five-on-five forever (or are they?). They’ve also played through the second-easiest schedule in the Division so far (and taken care of business there).
But the Caps are certainly trending in the right direction, and the results (six-straight wins, ten of their last eleven) are reflecting that.
Again, the Caps are outpacing their expected percentages... but those expected percentages have gotten pretty good, too (particularly on the defensive side of the puck).
All of which brings us to what’s probably the main point here: Peter Laviolette is doing a hell of a job behind the bench (and, to be sure, has gotten a good bit of “puck luck”... on offense, at least). Here’s a guy who started the season as a 25/1 longshot to win the Jack Adams Trophy as the League’s best coach (the same odds, incidentally, that since-fired Calgary bench boss Geoff Ward was given, and longer odds than also-pink-slipped Habs head honcho Claude Julien had), who has a team that was given slightly better than even odds to even make the playoffs in first place at the season’s midway point.
Luszczyszyn (who would be the first to tell you that his model has perennially underestimated Washington... well, maybe the second to tell you that, after us), concluded his season preview with the following:
How long [the Caps’ contending] window will remain open is not an easy question to answer. This is the lowest the model has ever been in on them and the team’s core is among the league’s oldest. Washington still has enough talent to be a playoff team, but this is the closest the Capitals have been to the other side of the playoff bubble in a very long time.
The Capitals have a knack for proving people wrong though, showing the hockey world they’re not dead yet. In 2017 everyone figured they had blown their best shot at a Cup only to see them storm back the following season to finally win it all. The time for their demise is coming, but this team has the competitive drive to delay the inevitable and a new coach might help with that. We’ll see if they can do it again for one more year.
The new coach and his old team seem to be doing exactly that... for one more “one more year.”