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Getting to “Good Enough”

A look at an indicator that’s trending in the right direction

NHL: APR 22 Capitals at Islanders Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Caps went on a 16-3-1 run that extended from mid-February through the end of March and essentially locked up a playoff spot for them (that’s three points more than Buffalo has on the season and one point less than Jersey has amassed), they did it largely thanks to strong goaltending and team defense at five-on-five. Their offensive production actually dipped during this stretch (from 3.62 goals per game before to 3.35 during the stretch and 3.57 since), but that was still plenty of goals for a team that was taking care of business in its own end of the rink.

Then, for about a two-week stretch starting in late March, that defensive proficiency slipped. Up went the high-danger chances against (from around nine per game during the “good” stretch to 14.5 over a six-game span) and the expected goals-against, and down went save percentage... and wins. Here’s a look at their rolling five-game expected goals against (xGA) per 60 at five-on-five through early April:

via MoneyPuck

The Caps struggled through a 2-4-0 stretch (seemed longer, didn’t it?), and bore little resemblance to the team that had seemingly figure it all out (well, most of it, at least) just a handful of games earlier.

And where are they now? Well...

via Money Puck

It sure looks as if they’ve gotten back on track defensively, punctuated by last night’s 1-0 win over the Islanders. Yes, the first period was a bit ugly, and Ilya Samsonov was terrific when he needed to be (especially in that stanza), but the three all-situation high-danger chances they allowed (two at even-strength in the first period and one on the power play in the third) ties a season low:

data via NatStatTrick

On the latest episode of Japers’ Rink Radio, it was asserted that in order for the Caps to have any sort of success in the post-season, they’d either need to tighten up the defense significantly and get League-average goaltending, or keep playing the same loose defense and get spectacular goaltending (something that hasn’t seemed particularly likely this season, especially over a long enough stretch to make any sort of playoff run). While the goaltending remains a question mark, the defense has been trending back in the right direction, which means that the team can demand less of its goalies. With this team’s offense and special teams continuing to do what they’re doing, solid defense, and “good enough” goaltending, the Caps will be right where they want to be heading into the playoffs.