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How the Caps Ended Up Where They Ended Up

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A look at the perils of leaving points on the table

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When the final buzzer sounds on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals will have fallen anywhere from one to three points short of a sixth consecutive Division title, ending an impressive span in which they had a League-best 249 wins and .676 points percentage, and won two Presidents’ Trophies and a Stanley Cup.

That they came so tantalizingly close to winning the MassMutual East Division (a division in which they were the favorites to be crowned champs as recently as late last week) in this incredibly challenging year leads to the inevitable question: what if...? What if they’d gotten a couple more saves or a couple more bounces or a couple more COVID protocols followed or a couple more improbable comebacks... or a couple more held leads. Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is?

Luckily (ha), MoneyPuck makes it easy to salt those open wounds by calculating in-game win probabilities. So, for example, we can look at the Caps’ games against the Penguins and see that there were four different games this year in which the Caps had an in-game win percentage above 70 percent... but lost (January 17, January 19, February 23 and April 29):

via MoneyPuck

That’s four points that the Caps left on the table, eight points that the Pens were able to steal... you do the math (and that doesn’t even include the Valentine’s Day game in which the Caps scored first to make them roughly 60/40 to win... which they did not).

In fact, the Caps held a lead in seven of their eight games against the Pens and won just two of those games. Good times.

We could stop there - but for blowing those leads and those games, the Caps would be the top seed in the Division heading into the playoffs - but we won’t. Not when there’s the Boston game (February 1) in which the Caps were 94.2 percent likely to win when they were up 3-0 more than halfway through the game (they lost 5-3 in regulation) or the Rangers game (March 30) in which they took a 2-1 lead (and a win probability north of 75 percent) into the third period, only to yield four unanswered goals.

All in all, the Caps played six games this season in which they had in-game win probabilities above 67 percent only to lose in regulation, and another four that they lost in overtime or a shootout (four against Pittsburgh, two each against Boston and Buffalo, and one each against the Rangers and Flyers). If the Caps end up facing Boston in the 2-3 match-up, the Bruins will have the Caps to thank for it, as the Caps let them escape with three points from two games in which the Caps blew 3-0 leads (January 30 being the other, not to mention another blown lead that gave the B’s two points).

But wait! The probability game cuts both ways, of course, and the Caps have certainly stolen points from games in which they were seemingly cooked. You may recall, for example, Saturday night, when Lars Eller and Conor Sheary turned a 3.3 percent likelihood of a win into exactly that.

The Caps have actually come back to win eight games in regulation in which they had less than a 33 percent in-game probability of victory and another two such wins in overtime/shootout. Here are the top-four (May 8, January 28, February 21 and March 19):

via MoneyPuck

You can be sure the Isles wish they had those two points... and the Caps might be wishing the same right now.

Add in Tom Wilson’s April 29 six-on-five goal to salvage a point against the Pens (a game that appears on both lists), an overtime loss to the Sabres after a late Nick Backstrom goal and another comeback against Pittsburgh and there’s another few “unlikely” points.

All told, the Caps have managed 23 points (ten wins, three overtime/shootout losses, with nine of those games coming against non-playoff teams) in games in which they had, at one point, an in-game win probability below 33 percent, and lost 15 points (five regulation losses and five overtime/shootout losses) in games in which their in-game likelihood of victory topped 67 percent. So, yeah, you might want to stay tuned to Caps games, even when you think they’re over - in 55 games, they’ve blown 27 leads; they’ve won 23 games that they were likely to lose (by in-game probability) and lost 16 they were likely to win.

What does it all mean? Way back in January, we offered the following after a couple of those early Pittsburgh losses:

[I]n a division in which razor-thin margins are likely to determine who’s in and who’s out come playoff time, leaving points on the table is compounded by the fact that a rival is scooping them right up. Put another way, the Caps definitely should have gained two points on the Penguins last night and likely four over the two-game set.

Instead, they lost one last night and two points overall (with Pittsburgh gaining four to Washington’s two). They left two points on the table, and allowed the Pens to snag four. It’s not hard to imagine that those January growing-pain swings could prove costly come May.

And that’s exactly what happened. Kudos to the Caps for scraping up points where they could, etc. But if not for free points they handed to the Pens, they’d have won the Division. For the Caps, it’s time to reap what they’ve sown.