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Are the Washington Capitals Good Again?

Here’s a resounding “maybe”

NHL: Washington Capitals at Winnipeg Jets Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On the day before American Thanksgiving (or, as we call it here, Thanksgiving), the Washington Capitals were reeling, losers of four-straight games and owners of the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference. With that holiday traditionally serving as an arbitrary milestone for sticking forks in more than just turkey and mashed potatoes, the Caps were on the precipice of having their season declared all but lost, the mountain of injuries and other assorted misfortune they’d suffered through autumn simply too much to overcome.

Since then, however, they’ve gone on an unlikely 7-2-1 tear that includes the four-game win streak they’re currently riding, equaling their prior year-to-date win total in half as many games and pulling to within a point of a wild card playoff spot (albeit with more games played than their closest competition for that seeding).

So is this momentum sustainable? Are the Washington Capitals... good again?

Yes! But also no. Or at least maybe.

The results themselves are unsurprisingly stark:

Stats via NHL.com

Everything has been better, from goals for and against to special teams to faceoff percentage. Charlie Lindgren has gone 4-0-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage in his last four starts. Alex Ovechkin has 13 points over the stretch, including some that weren’t on empty netters. John Carlson and T.J. Oshie have played all ten games after missing a half-dozen and 11 of the first 20, respectively.

But are the dramatically better results “puck luck” regressing, or has the team been better? Let’s take a look at score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five numbers, courtesy Natural Stat Trick:

via NatStatTrick

As your eyes scroll down, nothing really pops until... BAM! Expected goals-for percentage (xGF%). Despite modest turn-arounds in shot rates, the Caps’ share of expected goals has increased dramatically as a result of a much better scoring chance percentage and a massive swing in high-danger chances. Digging a little deeper into rates, while there have been upticks at both ends of the ice, these percentage swings have been driven largely by better defensive play, with big decreases in scoring chances and especially high-danger chances allowed at fives:

via NatStatTrick

One last note here - the Caps’ puck luck, overall, has actually gotten a little worse at fives over the last ten games, but the decrease in shooting percentage has been more or less offset by the increase in save percentage. The encouraging thing there is that we’d probably expect positive regression on the shooting side of things, especially if they can maintain that increased quality of shots, while the save percentage might be more sustainable owing to the decreased shot quality Caps goalies have faced. (As points of reference, the Caps’ five-on-five shooting percentage was 8.98 last year and their save percentage 91.6, so it’s probably best to prepare yourself for some regression at both ends of the rink.)

Put another way, here’s the Caps’ ten-game rolling 5v5 xGF%:

via MoneyPuck

So yeah, they’ve been better lately. A lot better. And it looks like November 22(ish) was just about rock bottom in terms of play as well as results:

via MoneyPuck

As is almost always the case with these things, the Caps were never as bad as they were when they were bad, and probably aren’t as good as they are now while they’re winning. But with reinforcements on the way, an easier schedule ahead, and, most importantly, improved play, these turkeys might not be quite done yet.