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Show of Support: How Ilya Samsonov Supercharges the Caps Offense

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McDavid, Samsonov, Ovechkin, Matthews... wait, what?

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s kindergarten-level math, really: put more pucks in the net than your opponent and you win the game. It doesn’t matter if the final tally is 2-1 or 8-1 or 5-4, they’re all worth two points in the standings.

Once you understand the basic arithmetic (remember, the “greater than” sign is an alligator’s open mouth chomping the bigger number!), it’s easier to understand how a goalie with a save percentage below .900 and a goals against average approaching three can post a sparkling 11-3-1 record.

Assuming you have deductive reasoning and reading comprehension skills commensurate with those kindergarten math chops, you’ve correctly surmised that the goalie in question is Ilya Samsonov, who has had an up-and-down (mostly down, if we’re being honest) sophomore season in the Caps net after an impressive start to his career... that tailed off midway through last season. Over his last 23 appearances (21 starts), a span that represents just over half of his work in the NHL, Samsonov has posted a save percentage of .891, a GAA of 3.18, and... a winning record (12-9-2). Only two goalies in the League over that stretch have played 750 minutes and put up worse save percentages and GAAs (Ottawa’s duo of Marcus Hoberg and Matt Murray), and they have a combined 18-30-4 record, both comfortably in the red.

You get the point - Samsonov hasn’t been good (in aggregate), and yet the Caps keep winning when he starts, especially this season. That’s because when Ilya Samsonov is in net, the Caps score goals. Lots of them. In fact, since he entered the League, no goalie has gotten more goal support than Samsonov - 3.48 goals per sixty minutes at five-on-five and 3.83 in all-situations. This season, Sammy’s at 3.65 and 4.03, respectively (both of which trail only Vegas’s Robin Lehner).

So let’s put those numbers in perspective. Samsonov’s 3.65 on-ice goals per sixty at fives this season is higher than any Caps goalie on record, including the 2009-10 team (a season in which they had netminders occupying the top three slots in the League in that metric), and second-highest overall (trailing Lehner this year). That number would put him behind only Daniel Sprong (4.06) and former Cap Jakub Vrana (3.84) on the team, a tick ahead of Alex Ovechkin (3.61). League-wide, that puts him right behind Connor McDavid (3.69), ahead of guys like Auston Matthews (3.52). In other words, when Samsonov has been in net this season, the Caps score at roughly the same rate at five-on-five as Edmonton does when McJesus is on the ice. Okay then. Over the past two seasons, that 3.48 number is sandwiched between David Pastrnak (3.52) and Steven Stamkos (3.43) League-wide. You get the point.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the Caps’ offense scores more for Samsonov than his Caps cage cohorts because they prefer playing for him or some such nonsense, and equally silly to suggest that there’s something in Samsonov’s game that produces more offense (Vitek Vanecek is in a perfectly enviable place on the goal support list himself). Correlation does not imply causation (and jokey blog post titles should be taken with grains of salt).

The bottom line is that Samsonov so far has been able to allow three goals, on average, and still win games. To wit, he’s 6-2-1 this season when allowing three or more goals (11-6-3 in his career), something he’s done five times in his last six starts... and notched three wins in those games. He’s the anti-Jacob deGrom (at least insofar as the narrative on deGrom goes).

But it’s very much worth noting yet again that the Caps are a team that consistently outperforms its expected goals-for, and Samsonov has done so by a wider margin than any goalie in the League so far (xGF/60 of 1.99 at fives; Vanecek is seventh in the League). At some point, that’s likely to regress - the Caps aren’t going to continue to shoot 13.7 percent at five-on-five with Samsonov in net - and if he doesn’t stop more pucks, things could get ugly fast. But you knew that. Because you can do kindergarten-level math.

[All stats current through Sunday’s games.]