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Are the Washington Capitals *Really* a Better Team on the Road?

A look at the team’s curious splits so far

Washington Capitals v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

The Washington Capitals are in the middle of an interesting stretch. Over their last nine games, they’ve won four-straight games away from Capital One Arena, but have dropped five-straight on their home sheet. Ilya Samsonov started five of those nine, appeared in seven, and has gone 3-0-0/.959/1.69 on the road and 0-3-0/.833/4.80 at home over that span. And those trends are actually fairly in-line with how the season has gone for Samsonov - of the 33 NHL goalies with 11 or more appearances on home ice, only Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka has a lower save percentage than Samsonov’s .890; get him on the road, however, and Sammy’s save percentage jumps to .920 (11th in the League with the same parameters).

But it’s not just Samsonov that has played Jekyll and Home, err, Hyde this year. The Caps - who had the second-most home wins in the League since 2008-09 entering this year - have just the 21st-best points percentage at home this season and have yet to win in regulation at Capital One Arena in calendar year 2022. Fortunately for them (and their playoff aspirations), they have the League’s second-best road points percentage on the season. Of course the goalie’s splits are going to have a huge impact on the team’s (and Vitek Vanecek has a similar, though less extreme breakout), but it’s not all on them. Let’s take a look at how the Caps have fared at home and on the road this season:

via NHL.com

Those are the high-level numbers. With the exception of five of the seven shorthanded goals they’ve allowed coming at home, special teams have actually been better in D.C. (those road numbers are ghastly). Otherwise, the Caps have had a lot more success on the road, posting nearly a goal differential of nearly a full goal better (0.85) while wearing white.

But those are results. What about the processes leading up to those numbers, specifically at five-on-five?

Note: numbers are score- and venue-adjusted.
via NatStatTrick

The disparity we saw in that first table is most closely represented in the Goals-For Percentage (GF%) row here - at home, the Caps have been just below break-even in five-on-five goals for (48.3), but on the road, they’ve very nearly doubled their opponents with that 66.4 percent mark (tops in the League). But the numbers that underlie that difference don’t reflect nearly as wide a gap, which can be seen in the Expected Goals-For Percentage (xGF%) row. The Caps have been better on the road in xGF%, but only by one-and-a-half percentage points (52.3 to 50.8), hardly the massive spread we see in actual goals-for. In other words, we’d expect the Caps to be a bit above break-even at five-on-five both at home and on the road, but instead they’re in the red at home (pun sorta intended) and rocking an unsustainably high percentage on the road (as a point of reference, the 2009-10 Caps appear to have the highest road GF% over the course of a full season on record at 65.2%; most seasons’ leaders barely break 60 percent, if at all).

That begs two questions: 1) what’s driving the gap between the Caps’ expected home and road differentials? and 2) what’s driving the gap between the Caps’ expected and actual results in each location category?

On the former question, the gap is pretty small (that 52.3 to 50.8 difference), but not nothing, and it seems to be that the Caps have been a little better at creating offense on the road. To wit, their home/road splits in expected Goals-Against (xGA) are a nearly identical 2.30 and 2.31 per sixty. But at the other end of the rink, they’re creating around 7% more offense (2.54 to 2.37 xGF/60). Roll it all up and that’s the difference between 52.3 percent and 50.8 percent expected goals-for. As to why that difference in offense exists, it’s probably noise - guys who have or haven’t been in the lineup over these roughly 25 games per sample, the teams they’ve played, rest they’ve had, etc. It could also be related to coaching - it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Peter Laviolette takes advantage of line-matching at home and ends up playing his ostensibly less-offensive fourth line more (and maybe offensive-minded guys like Connor McMichael and Daniel Sprong less).

On the second question, it would appear that the gaps between their expected and actual results at home and on the road are driven largely by, you guessed it: goaltending. At home, the Caps have the League’s 24th-best adjusted 5v5 save percentage (.908), the 25th-ranked scoring-chance save percentage (.851) and the 28th high-danger scoring-chance save percentage (.775). On the road, they have the best adjusted 5v5 save percentage in the League (.943), and are tops in both scoring-chance (.927) and high-danger (.893) save percentages. (Go ahead and read that again, we’ll wait.)

How the hell is that even possible?

Among goalies with 475 minutes played at five-on-five in each of home and away situations, Vitek Vanecek has the best adjusted five-on-five save percentage in hockey on the road (.951), and has saved goals above average at the League’s highest rate (Samsonov ranks 10th and 11, respectively); at home, Vanecek is a respectable 18th of 35 in both categories (Samsonov is 31st in both).

You get the point. But that’s still the “what” and not the “why.” And, as unsatisfying as it may be, the answer to “why” is, again, probably pretty random variance. You can easily convince yourself that there’s more pressure playing at home or that it’s harder to follow strict routines with family around, and that stuff might be true. But it’s probably not as true as “sometimes, over a 25-game sample, a handful more or fewer pucks go in than you might expect.” Vitek Vanecek has faced 72 high-danger shots at fives on the road this season and stopped 66 of them for a League-best .917 save percentage. But if he’d allowed three more, he drops out of the top-10. Ilya Samsonov has only stopped 265 of the 295 five-on-five shots he’s faced at home for an .898 save percentage, 36 of 39 goalies with 450 minutes. But if he’d stopped seven more - one every other game - he’d be in the top-20.

Those are big “ifs,” of course, and it’s not all lucky (and unlucky) bounces by any stretch of the imagination. But the point is that these are still relatively small samples that can be (and have been) dramatically influenced by small inputs. The Caps are unlikely to stay as hot as they have been on the road, especially in net. They’re also unlikely to stay as cold as they have been at home... especially in net. Over time, they’ll likely settle into “good-not-great” overall, and the chips will fall where they may.

And, heck, if they are truly a better road team, that will serve them well... because they’re unlikely to play as often at home as on the road come the playoffs.