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An East Full of Beasts

A look at a loaded conference and how the Caps measure up

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NHL: JAN 22 Senators at Capitals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve reached the midpoint of the NHL season (more or less) and the Eastern Conference playoff race is all but decided, with eight teams better than 90 percent likely to make the postseason dance and only the Islanders really having any chance at all of crashing the party (HockeyViz’s model tells a similar story):

via @BulsinkB

Yes, even with their recent slide, the Caps are overwhelmingly likely to qualify for the playoffs. As Craig Laughlin likes to do on the Caps’ telecasts, it’s time to start crossing teams off - there’s nothing left to do but jostle for seeding and get ready for the sport’s ultimate tournament.

Frankly, the top of the East is stacked. In NHL.com’s latest power rankings, seven of the top eight spots were held by those teams minus Boston (11th overall), with only Colorado (in the second slot) representing the West; over at The Athletic, it’s the Caps ranked 11th and the Avs (at the top of the list) the only Western team in the top eight. You get the point.

So, with half the season to go and some idea what the path to the Finals might look like, how do the Caps stack up? It’s one thing to identify their weaknesses (goaltending, scoring depth) and think about how they might address those, but doing so with an eye towards the playoffs is important. Therefore, we’re going to take a quick look at each of the eight putative postseason participants in the East (leaning heavily on the great work over at HockeyViz, whom you should support) to try to get a feel for how the Caps measure up. (All stats are through Sunday night’s games, and teams are listed by points percentage.)

Atlantic Division

1. Florida Panthers (28-9-5, 61 points, .726 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

The Panthers are an absolutely dominant offensive team at five-on-five, where they lead the League in goal, scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance rates, but nothing about their defensive or special teams rates jump off the page at you. They have gotten above-expected finishing and goaltending, though, and are a beast of a team overall.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (28-10-5, 61 points, .709 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

The two-time defending champs are strong at both ends at five-on-five, play good special teams, and probably have the best goalie on the planet. What’s their weakness - too much winning?

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (25-10-3, 53 points, .697 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

Toronto is another dominant offense at fives and their special teams - especially their power play - have been unbelievable, leading them to the top spot in the League in all-situation expected goal share (55.6 percent, just ahead of Florida, Boston, Pittsburgh and Carolina). They have skill all over the place, and are dramatically out-pacing expectations in net and on offense. The two-three matchup in the Atlantic is going to brutal and likely eliminate one of the three or four best teams in hockey.

4. Boston Bruins (24-12-2, 50 points, .658 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

Defense has been the Bruins’ calling card, as they’ve posted the lowest expected goals-against rate on the circuit at five-aside and have a strong penalty kill. The offense is top-heavy and good-not-great overall, and they’re getting the stops you’d expect, more or less. They’re not a sacrificial lamb come playoff time, but they’re not quite in the same class as the division’s top three teams right now. Then again, with the third-best all-strengths expected Goals-For percentage... maybe they are.

Metro Division

1. Carolina Hurricanes (27-9-2, 56 points, .737 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

Carolina is the League leader in all strengths Goals-For percentage at a hair under 60 percent thanks to a very good five-on-five offense, an otherworldly penalty kill and tremendous goaltending. To wit, they lead the League in goals against rate (just ahead of the Pens, Rangers and Isles, for good measure), despite ranking 20th in expected goals against rate. Does that regress at some point? Maybe. But this team is good enough to withstand a bit of that.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-10-5, 57 points, .695 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

Don’t be misled by those early season fantasies you had about the Penguins’ reign of terror being over. It’s not. They’re good. Their offense is good. Their defense is good. Their special teams are very good. Their goaltending has been good. Just about the only thing that hasn’t been good is their finishing, and getting Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin healthy for the second half and beyond should fix that. They look to be a tough out (even if they haven’t been for the last few years).

3. New York Rangers (27-11-4, 58 points, .690 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

Finally, a team that probably isn’t all that great. The Rangers have the worst expected goals-for percentage at five-on-five in the League. Yes, the worst. They rank 28th in both expected goals for and against, but have been terrific on the power play and have gotten exceptional goaltending. Igor Shesterkin leads the League in goals saved above expected per sixty among goalies with 15 or more appearances (with fellow Eastern goalies occupying five of the next six spots), and so it seems the Blueshirts are back on their “let’s hope our all-world netminder can go out there and win a series or four” shit. Great.

4. Washington Capitals (23-10-9, 55 points, .655 points percentage)

via HockeyViz

Finally, your Washington Capitals. The underlying numbers are pretty underwhelming here. The offense is middle-of-the-road at fives and, well, you know about the power play. The defense is rather good, even as the penalty kill has fallen apart a bit in results. Finishing and saving are about what you’d expect overall, which may be surprising on the “saving” side of things, but will likely be highly problematic when any goalie they face in the playoffs is almost certainly superior to what they’ve got now, and their offense already struggles to score.

data via NatStatTrick

Overall, of these eight teams, the Caps have the seventh-best five-on-five offense (by expectations), the third best defense, the worst power play, and a bottom-half penalty kill. Still, their all-strength expected goals-for percentage is ninth-best in the League... which is only good for sixth in the Conference (actual goals-for percentage is tenth, also sixth in the Conference, and just ahead of Boston and New York).

Point being, the Caps have been a good team in a 32-team League, but do they have what it takes to be a good team in a loaded eight-team tournament? Certainly getting healthier would help, but they’re not the only team that has had a rough go with injuries and illness. Are they one scorer away from being able to seriously contend in the East? One goalie away? Or are they already there? Do they have a goalie who can win a series against one of those top-half teams? Do they even have one that can not lose a series?

As the trade deadline approaches, the Caps need to balance the reality of the team they have with the reality of a core that’s moving from “getting older” to “got old.” Simply making the playoffs and “then anything can happen” isn’t a plan any more than playing the lottery is sound retirement planning. It might be time for the Caps to go all-in... or to fold. Because you can’t really bluff your way to victory in the NHL.