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Frustrating Firsts: Bad Play or Bad Luck?

A look at the Caps’ (recent) propensity to dig holes and keep digging

Washington Capitals v St Louis Blues Photo by Joe Puetz/NHLI via Getty Images

Over their last three first periods (against Tampa, Florida and St. Louis), the Washington Capitals have been outscored 8-0 and outshot 38-22.

That’s pretty bad, and an awful hard way to win games in this league, especially on the road. This recent run of rough starts (including what was against the Blues, frankly, a pretty darn good start... until it wasn’t) can make it seem like a problem that’s plagued the team all year. But that’s not the case. In fact, prior to these last three games, the Caps had yielded just eight first-period tallies in 16 games, third-fewest in the League (Dallas six in 14, Montreal seven in 15).

Over the course of the season, the Caps’ first periods have been a mixed bag (unlike the last three games, which have been a flaming bag left on a doorstep). By Natural Stat Trick’s score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five numbers, they’ve out-attempted opponents, holding a 51.2 percent share of shot attempts, and created more scoring chances (52.0%). But they’ve been out-shot (on goal; 44.8%) and out-chanced in high-danger areas (45.1%), leading to an expected Goals-For percentage of 45.7. Not good, but not terrible... which is what their actual Goals-For percentage of 36.1 is. In roughly half of their games, they’ve been the better team, by underlying metrics; they’ve even had more power-play opportunities than their opponents, 25 to 19. But it hasn’t translated on the scoresheet, where they’ve trailed first in 11 games, third-most on the circuit.

So what’s going on?

On the surface, it looks pretty simple - they’re creating a lot of unproductive shots while their opponents have the edge in quality. And that’s certainly a big part of it. But so is luck (or “luck”). While this most recent road trip has featured some first-period tallies that Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren would want back, they’ve been absolutely stellar in opening stanzas over the course of the season. To wit, the Caps have an expected first period save percentage of .913 at fives (a little lower than you’d like), Kuemper and Lindgren have posted an actual adjusted save percentage of .949. Take out these last three games and those numbers move to .908 and .971, respectively. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

No, the issue has been putting pucks in the net, not keeping them out. The Caps have just nine first-period markers on the season, second-fewest in the League, with the only team below them (Arizona) having played three fewer games. At five-on-five, they’ve generated 12.5 expected first-period goals... but potted just five actual goals, with an expected shooting percentage of 9.0 but an actual 3.6 Sh% (five of their nine first-period goals have come on the power play). Take away a two-goal first period against Toronto in the second game of the year and that shooting percentage drops to 2.2 (on an expected 9.4). That’s a brutal run of luck, even with a decimated team that has played the third-toughest schedule in the League so far.

Through 19 first periods, what we’ve seen is some decent but unproductive puck possession, generally terrific goaltending that has regressed some over the past week, and bad luck at the offensive end that hasn’t. It has culminated in a brutal run on the current road trip, but the results have been worse than the play, certainly overall.

At some point, though, a team just flat-out needs results, and the Caps have been at that point for a while now. Whether they can get back on track without an infusion of talent (from the IR or elsewhere) remains to be seen.