When the Washington Capitals took the ice for the third period of their November 30 game against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, they did so with a commanding 4-1 lead, getting four pucks past Sergei Bobrovsky with Ilya Samsonov sparkling against his fellow countryman at the other end.
The Caps also led the Metro Division by two points over Carolina at the time, having beaten the Hurricanes in Raleigh two nights earlier to push their NHL-best record to 14-3-5 before their matchup with the 14-4-3 Panthers.
Things were good.
And then they weren’t.
Florida scored just over three minutes into the third period to cut into Washington’s lead, then potted a goal three minutes later with the Caps on a potential “put the game away” power play that came up empty. With eight minutes left in the frame, the Kitties got a power-play tally of their own to complete the comeback and a Beck Malenstyn goaltender interference penalty in the final minute set the stage for Sam Reinhart’s game-winner with 15 seconds left.
The Caps’ collapse was massive, as they were outshot 27-2 in the third period and yielded three special teams goals, including that shorty. In a game in which their likelihood of winning was better than 96 percent at one point, they couldn’t even limp their way to overtime to salvage a standings point, losing in regulation after holding a two-period lead for the first time this season (they’d do it again three weeks later against Los Angeles, but this time it was only a one-goal lead).
Caps Coach Peter Laviolette: "We stopped playing. That is two games in a row that we've stopped playing in the third period. If you don't punch back, the only thing you are going to do is get punched and we got punched for 20 minutes. It's on us."— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) December 1, 2021
Laviolette: "It was work, It was work. There's nothing else I can say. We stopped working. They worked hard, we stopped working and that's how you get outshot 26-2."— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) December 1, 2021
Laviolette to @JunksRadio on FLA: "It’s like a pendulum swing that goes from you’re in charge to the other team’s coming and you’ve taken your foot off the gas. The work isn’t as a good. The work has been the secret sauce to (our) success, and it just didn’t come out...” #Caps— Tarik El-Bashir (@Tarik_ElBashir) December 1, 2021
Since then, the Caps have been a different team. They’ve gone 9-7-4 (not including that loss), slipped from atop the Metro to a (fairly safe) wild card spot, and have just five regulation wins. The high-level “before” and “after” is jaw-dropping:
It would be narratively convenient to say that the Florida loss sent them into some sort of death spiral, but that’s probably not the case. If we dig a little deeper, the “before” and “after” is jaw-dropping...ly similar, especially at five on five:
Now, “similar” isn’t to say “great” (or even particularly “good,” as is the case with the power play), and the special teams drop-off is more pronounced. But to assume that the same process will yield the same result is misguided. As you might suspect, the biggest drivers of the high-level swings are the team’s shooting and save percentages:
Those are pretty steep declines nearly across the board in terms of what some would call “puck luck,” and with five-on-five scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance rates for and against all within eight percent “before” and “after,” it’s hard to think that luck isn’t a huge factor here. Things have fallen off a bit more precipitously on special teams (scoring chance and high-danger chance rates are down 13 and nine percent, respectively, and the drops on the penalty kill are even more pronounced, to the point of concern), but these sample sizes are a lot smaller than the five-on-five data sets. The Caps, by and large, just aren’t getting the bounces they were earlier on.
Which brings us back to November 30.
That’s the Caps’ season-to-date cumulative goal differential above expected goal differential, in other words “how much they’re outpacing expectations.” That peaked with that Panthers game (their expected goal differential in that one was actually in the neighborhood of minus-3.5, so only losing by one was a plus-2.5 goal differential above expected). Since then, they’re around 10 goals below expected, which, of course, makes it seem, in aggregate, like they’re playing a lot worse than they are.... just like the first quarter of the season made them look like they were playing a lot better than they were.
As cliché as it is, teams usually aren’t as good as they look when they’re winning and aren’t as bad as they look when they’re losing. And that’s likely the case with the Caps right now. Frankly, the “death spiral” narrative would be more comforting, because there would be the hope that they could snap out of it and be magically turned back into the team that took that 4-1 lead into the third period against the Panthers.
The reality is a little less consoling and a lot less dramatic. The Caps have simply regressed after a hot start and, for the most part, sit where you might expect you’d have found them on January 26 - not among the Conference’s elite teams, but solidly in playoff position or at least contention, a team with an average offense that plays good defense and has some special teams concerns. That, of course, underplays the power play issues, but also undersells what they’ve been able to do with the injury and illness adversity they’ve faced.
And maybe they get a talent infusion on the roster via guys getting healthy or trade, and maybe they go on another heater like they did for the first quarter of the season (time that right and they give you a trophy at the end of the run).
But this is who the Caps are - a good-not-great team. Odds are they’ll start looking like it again soon.