1. The OT Goal
Let’s talk about the Game 4 overtime game-winner, shall we? Here it is:
First off, who was out there? For the goal, it was Lars Eller, Connor McMichael and Conor Sheary up front, Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov on the back end:
But that’s not who was on at the start of the clip above. Early in the clip, as Florida starts heading up ice, we see Garnet Hathaway go all the way across the ice for a line change (in a period with the long change), ending a 59-second shift. Linemates Nic Dowd and Johan Larsson had changed a little earlier, but Hathaway got caught out and had barely gotten to the bench when Florida scored (Sheary isn’t even in frame at any point). That’s a tough line change, a tough minus for Sheary, and icing on the cake on a really tough night for Hathaway.
But it didn’t have to be that way.
For as long as you’ve been a hockey fan, you’ve heard coaches and players harp on “getting pucks in deep.” You might not even have really known what they meant by that... until you watched Connor McMichael on that shift. Rather than chipping the puck into the Florida end along the boards (enabling, at a minimum, a clean line change and a reset in position at the cost of possession), the Caps’ rookie tries to stickhandle through the neutral zone and then coughs it up in the middle of the ice. It doesn’t take a defenseman like Aaron Ekblad long to turn that mistake into a rush the other way, where McMichael gets caught puck-watching Carter Verhaeghe’s initial shot (rather than sticking with him), and allows a clean attempt on the rebound. Game over (and possibly series over for McMike).
Prior to Game 4, Panthers’ bench boss Andrew Brunette lamented his team’s ability to pounce on leftovers around the Caps’ cage:
#FlaPanthers Brunette says part of the issue is the Cats aren’t getting into high danger zones to capitalize on second chances. “I don’t know if there’s any rebounds we got to.”— Erin Brown (@rinkside) May 7, 2022
Well, they got to that one.
To put it generously, that shift will be a learning experience for McMichael. (One might reasonably wonder why the Eller line was on before Nicklas Backstrom’s line twice in overtime, but that may be a little nitpicky, especially with the nominal second line having a pretty awful game). It’s plays like that that limit his playing time in key games and moments, but without playing time in key games and moments, it’s sometimes hard to learn to not make plays like that. Alas.
As for the rebound itself, the initial shot was a deceptively tough one. Samsonov picks the puck out through a bit of a screen from Sam Bennett, who redirects the puck enough to earn the primary assist on the goal, and fights off the hard, low shot, kicking it out past the Eller-Jonathan Huberdeau duo that was crashing the net. You’d probably like to see that rebound played just about anywhere else, but you’d really like to see someone defending Verhaeghe there. The follow-up is a nice shot, back far-side and top corner and it would’ve been a nice stop, but it wasn’t to be.
The play was reviewed for goalie interference, and had the puck gone in short-side, the Caps might’ve been on the right side of that review. But they weren’t. And we’re tied.
Everyone wants to be the hero in overtime. But try too hard, and you might end up the goat.
2. No Offense?
It’s a good thing the Caps’ power play has been on fire, because their five-on-five offense has dried up a bit. Yes, they had the three goals in Game 3. But that’s also as many as they’ve had in the other three games combined, and that includes a pair in Game 1. Visually, it looks like this (and it’s not hard to see a trend):
To their credit, the Caps have created high-danger chances at a pretty consistent rate as their shot- and scoring-chance generation has dropped off, but that drop-off has been precipitous and is concerning. From Game 1 to Game 4, the Caps are down roughly 1⁄3 in shot attempts (CF) and scoring changes (SCF), and more than 50 percent in actual shots on goal.
These are small samples, of course, and it’s just as easy to ignore the trend and discard Game 4 as the anomaly in an otherwise fairly consistent set of three games. But while we’re talking about small samples, let’s take a look at how individual skater rates have compared to their regular-season rates:
So what stands out? Our eyes always go to Alex Ovechkin first, so let’s start there. His shots and scoring chances are down overall, but that’s been mitigated by an uptick in high-danger chances and his individual expected goal rate is exactly where it was over the course of the season (0.87). He’s still looking for his first five-on-five goal of the series.
Garnet Hathaway is creating chances and taking them. T.J. Oshie, Nick Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are all up. But that’s about it for positives, and the Caps are getting especially little from the blueline - during the regular season, the half-dozen D the Caps have played in the playoffs so far combined to attempt 55.9 shots per 60 and 3.2 individual high danger chances per 60 at five-on-five; in the playoffs, those numbers have dropped to 33.3 and 1.9, respectively. Those are huge declines, and it’s hardly surprising that they have only the Trevor van Riemsdyk Game 3 goal and a secondary assist from Dmitry Orlov to show for their efforts on the score sheet at fives. Here’s a peek at how the playoffs compare to the regular season in terms of the percentage of five-on-five shot attempts, by position:
Best guess? The Caps are taking a more conservative approach to D jumping into the play in the offensive zone given their high-octane opponent, who’s willing to leave early to create rush opportunities. Because typically, active defensemen are a hallmark of this team’s offensive approach, as we see in these two examples from Jack Han’s terrific book Hockey Tactics 2022: The Playbook, which you really should purchase:
But let’s hear from the author himself:
I still see WSH use the Strong Side D Down, more as a way to kill FLA exits and force 50/50s. Panthers play more of a zone defense instead of man on man, so Strong Side D jumping by one check and attacking middle isn't as available.— Jack Han (@JhanHky) May 11, 2022
Anyway, even with that drop from the defense, the Caps have, in aggregate, been strikingly similar to where they were for the regular season in a number of five-on-five offensive metrics:
Less quantity, a little more quality, same expectations (with a dash less puck luck). (On a sidenote, it’s interesting how a 14 percent drop in shot attempts, a 16 percent dip in shots on goal and even a six percent reduction in scoring chances is all but offset by a 3.3 percent increase in high-danger chances.)
Anyway, all told, here are the forwards, sorted by expected goals (with actual goals one column over):
Nothing too crazy. This isn’t a great defensive team or a great goalie that the Caps are facing, and, offensively, Washington is more or less doing what they’ve done all season long, in aggregate. Whether you see Game 4 as the most recent data point in a downward trend or an anomaly relative to the 85 games that preceded it is all in the framing.
3. Give and Take
Along with Hits, Giveaways and Takeaways are probably the most dubious statistics the NHL tracks, ill-defined and subjective (I like to think of it as you dropping your wallet on the ground is a giveaway; me reaching into your pocket and grabbing your wallet is a takeaway). But at the end of the day, they’re turnovers. So to the extent these stats are useful, that utility may come via combining them: one team’s giveaways plus the opponent’s takeaways should equal the first team’s turnovers, yeah? Yeah.
Through four games, then, the team that has won the turnover battle has won the game, with Florida’s two win featuring absolutely massive advantages in puck management:
What’s really striking is the number of giveaways the Caps committed in their two losses (in two different buildings, with two different scorers), as well as their relative inability to turn Florida over, either by pressuring them into giveaways or stealing pucks themselves. The culprits are the guys you’d expect (the guys with the puck on their sticks the most), guys like John Carlson (eight giveaways), T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov (six apiece) and so on. (Connor McMichael, interestingly enough, wasn’t charged with a giveaway for the play discussed above, nor was Aaron Ekblad credited with a takeaway; dubious, as noted). It can hardly be entirely coincidental that the Caps have been around or above 50 percent in expected goals (xGF) and scoring chance (SCF) percentages at five-on-five when they’ve won the turnover battle, and at or below 40 percent when they’ve gotten killed there:
But it’s less about the raw numbers and more the bigger picture on puck management (those Games 3 and 4 disparities line up with your eye test, don’t they? And the Caps having a slight edge in their wins is believable). The Caps have to make better decisions and execute better with the puck, and they need to force Florida into making some mistakes when they have the biscuit. Otherwise, we’re going to see more games with 32-16 shot disparities... with likely commensurate scores.