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The Narrative: Low Fives, Burying the Lead and Third Pair, Don’t Care

Three things we’re talking about today when we’re talking about the Caps

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Low Fives

During the regular season the, Washington Capitals scored 131 goals at five-on-five (2.3 per game), one great Alex Ovechkin night behind League-leading Vegas’s total of 135. Through three playoff games (really ten periods and change), they’re just a bit below that pace, having managed six tallies at fives, though they’re scoring rate is off by a more significant amount (2.16 goals-for per sixty minutes at five-on-five after clicking at a 2.89 mark during the regular season, a 25 percent drop).

But it’s not the “how many” that sticks out so much as the “who has” or, more accurately, the “who hasn’t.” The Caps have two goals apiece from Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd, one from Brenden Dillon and one from Tom Wilson. That’s two fourth-liners, a defenseman who has averaged a goal every 27 games over the course of his career, and a top-six wing. That’s great, guys, thanks for your contributions.

The list of Caps who haven’t scored a five-on-five goal yet includes Ovechkin (14 during the regular season), Daniel Sprong (13), Conor Sheary (12), Nicklas Backstrom (10), T.J. Oshie (8), Anthony Mantha (8), Evgeny Kuznetsov (8), Dmitry Orlov (7), John Carlson (7), Lars Eller (6), Carl Hagelin (4), Michael Raffl (4), Zdeno Chara (2), Justin Schultz (2) and Nick Jensen (2).

That’s 107 five-on-five goals during the regular season, zero so far in the post-season. To be fair, not one of those guys averaged a goal every three games at fives, so, individually, you could say none of them has necessarily failed to meet expectations. But at a team level... yeah.

Boston has done a good job stifling the Caps at five-on-five - Washington’s expected goal rate is at 1.87, down from a regular-season mark of 2.15 (so, as usual, the Caps are beating their “expected” performance). Here’s how it looks on an individual level, with each player’s regular-season and post-season individual expected five-on-five goal rate:

data via NatStatTrick

Oh, hey there, Daniel Sprong.

As a point of reference, three Caps defenders are in the 60-70 minute range so far, and Backstrom and Ovechkin are just north of 45 minutes. So, for example, with Backstrom at 49 minutes (or ~80 percent of an hour), we’d expect just over a third of a goal for him so far based on his regular-season rate, and just under a fifth of a goal based on his post-season rate.

Of course, no one’s ever scored a fifth of a goal in an NHL game, and we have zero goals from Nick Backstrom at five-on-five.

Four names really stand out here in a bad way: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie and Kuznetsov. There are mitigating factors (Kuznetsov’s tiny sample in his one game since returning from COVID; Oshie’s other contributions as he’s gamely stepped into an unfamiliar role), but these are the Caps’ big guns and they aren’t firing. Game-by-game, the forwards look like this:

The Sprong Lobby is now gathering torches and pitchforks...
via MoneyPuck

Ovechkin looked great in Game 1 primed to break out, and has since fallen off the table. Why? In Game 1 he faced primarily Boston’s third pair (Kevan Miller and Jeremy Lauzon) and the Krejci line and had three five-on-five scoring chances (one considered high-danger). In Game 2, he saw more of a balance of Bruins (two SCF, zero HDCF), and in Game 3 he got a hearty dose of the B’s top duo (Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk) and the Bergeron line (no SCF or HDCF). Funny how that whole “last line change/home ice advantage” thing works. It’s incumbent on Peter Laviolette to figure out a way to get Ovechkin some better looks.

Of course, it’s never just about Ovechkin (but it also always is, isn’t it?); the Caps simply need to generate more offense at five-aside. The goals they’ve gotten at fives - the ones from grinders - are the kind that are supposed to complement the skill players’ production, not supplant it.

2. Burying the Lead

When the Caps won the Stanley Cup in 2018 (a thing that definitely happened), they actually outscored opponents when they had the lead, something that’s not necessarily easy to do. To wit, so far this postseason, leading teams have been outscored 24-17 overall and 17-6 at five-on-five.

The Caps, for their part, have been outscored 5-0 when up a goal (3-0 at five-on-five). They’ve blown leads in each of the three games so far - a 2-1 lead late in the second period of Game 1, a 3-2 lead with three minutes left in Game 2 and a 2-1 lead with eight-and-a-half minutes left in Game 3. As you might suspect, the Caps were well above 70 percent likely to win each of those games before yielding the tying goal, per MoneyPuck.

They won one.

The Caps play with the lead in this series has been abysmal. Let’s compare it to the regular season (these are five-on-five numbers):

via NatStatTrick

Numbers are down pretty much across the board (though shot attempts are almost exactly where they were during the regular season, interestingly enough), and, as you’d suspect, they’re down at both ends of the ice, with more of a lapse in the defensive end. (The astute observer might note that the Bruins have also blown the only two leads in this series that they’ve had, but their underlying numbers while up aren’t troubling for anyone but the Caps - they have a ridiculous 80 percent expected goals-for rate at fives while leading.) And it’s not a goaltending issue, either:

data via NatStatTrick

(That low-danger goal-against, by the way, was Jake DeBrusk’s goal on which Vitek Vanecek was injured.)

This is simply a volume issue - not enough shots at the Bruins’ end, too many in the Caps’ zone. Add in Nic Dowd’s bad penalty and a misplay here and there and it’s not hard to see how the Caps have become the blowiest blowers that ever blew.

Then again, to paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘tis better to have led and lost than never to have led at all. He must not have been a Caps fan.

3. Third Pair, Don’t Care

Game Score is a rating using an algorithm that weighs, by position, on-ice performance including xGF, xGA, and other stats in each. There are two Caps who have played in all three games so far and gotten a positive Game Score in each, and since you’re able to use context clues to solve mysteries like this, you’ve already figured out that those two Caps are Zdeno Chara and Nick Jensen.

A plus pair during the regular season, the duo has been even better so far against the Bruins, posting a 65.2 xGF%, 65.1 SCF% and 78.6 HDCF% at five-on-five. Per game, that looks like this (highlighted by their Game 3 performances):

via MoneyPuck

They’re also 1-2 in penalty killing time (Chara, then Jensen) and have been on the ice for one Boston power-play goal in 10-plus minutes each (Jensen has also blocked five shots on the kill, seven overall, and is the only Caps blueliner not yet tagged with a giveaway).

Granted, the duo has played third-pair minutes and has barely been on the ice against the B’s top line (though they’ve played a bit against the second line and fared well). But the way they’re playing - and the way the other Washington defenders are playing - maybe that should change.