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The Capitals’ Recent Rocky Road and What it Means

The Caps have gone through a tough stretch of games this season and had a lot of losses... so what does it say about this team?

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

When the NHL schedule was originally announced in the summer, the stretch of games spanning from October 27 through November 19 really stood out, with 13 games in 24 days and one back-to-back set. It wasn’t just the amount of games in a short period of time but who the opponents were - because outside of the Arizona Coyotes and the Detroit Red Wings, every team was either good to top tier: Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas, Vegas, Carolina, Tampa twice, Colorado, Edmonton, Florida.

That is just a brutal stretch that would be a tough task for any team, let alone a very shorthanded one. And while the absences of Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Carl Hagelin were all known before the season, what we weren’t aware of was how extensive and devastating the injury bug would become to start the season.

Just four games into the campaign, Connor Brown was knocked out for what will likely be the whole year due to an ACL tear. T.J. Oshie played just the first two games of the stretch before missing the rest with a vague “lower-body injury” tag. On the blueline, John Carlson missed six games and Dmitry Orlov missed the last seven. That is a lot of talent missing at the worst time, and it meant that there were stretches where the Caps were playing without four top-six players and two top-pair defensemen against top teams in the league.

How did the Caps do during that difficult stretch so shorthanded? On the surface, it wasn’t pretty. The Caps went 3-7-3, even dropping both games to the “easier” teams in Arizona and Detroit. Woof. But an argument could be made that there were positive signs beneath the surface - signs that, with better health and luck, things could start looking up for the Caps.

These were their underlying five-on-five stats during that 13-game stretch (per Natural Stat Trick):

  • 52.71 CF% (shot attempts)
  • 50.56 xGF% (expected goals)
  • 52.22 SCF% (scoring chances)
  • 49.58 HDCF% (high danger scoring chances)

Those numbers are by no means dominant or top tier, but they’re somewhat surprising nonetheless. The fact that Caps were above 50%, or close to it, on all of these important metrics while shorthanded is really encouraging.

But if they played pretty well, why did they win just three of the thirteen games? You could look at Peter Laviolette’s unwillingness to play much needed youth and skill consistently by sitting Connor McMichael and Joe Snively, or his love for the Gustafsson-Carlson pairing that kept getting caved in. You could point to the remaining stars not stepping up or the team not putting in the work, or just not getting some much needed bounces. All of those things could be and probably were factors... but the most telling stat is the team’s shooting percentage.

During that 13-game stretch, the Caps shot just 5.81% at five on five. That’s a dramatic drop-off from the team’s regular rate; over the past three seasons combined, the Caps have the second-highest shooting percentage at 9.41%. Pucks just weren’t going in for them during the stretch.

And it’s not hard to see why. The Caps were missing four 20+ goal scorers with Backstrom, Wilson, Brown, and Oshie out, plus a consistent 10+ goal-scoring blueliner in Carlson - and Orlov even brings the offense, having scored 12 goals last season. That’s a lot good shooters missing in the lineup, and while the team that was left tried valiantly, they just don’t have the same level of finishing ability as many of the missing pieces.

There’s good news among the bleakness, though. The Caps are currently getting their longest break since the end of October, in the middle of a three-day rest period where they get a chance to just practice and focus on fixing some of the details that could be missing. That’s also given them time for some of the injured players to start working their way back - Orlov and Oshie both notably took part in practice earlier this week, and while Orlov’s status is still up in the air, Oshie seems to be inching closer to a return. It’s not everyone, but it’s sure a start, and with Wilson right around the corner the Caps could finally get to be some semblance of the team they were meant to be.

The other good thing is that, according to Power Rankings Guru, the Capitals have had the third-toughest schedule so far - which means it can only get easier, and it will, as the same source gives them the sixth-easiest schedule for the rest of the season (and, notably, the easiest in the Eastern Conference).

If the Caps can combine their underlying numbers with a return to health - and hopefully start getting the bounces that have alluded them so far - they could go on a run that puts them back in playoff contention. It won’t be easy and certainly isn’t a guarantee, but don’t count them out of the Metro race just yet.