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The Narrative: It Don’t Come Easy, Fives Hole, Top Fore

Three things we’re talking about today when we’re talking about the Caps

Philadelphia Flyers v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

1. It Don’t Come Easy

It’s hard to ask the goalies in this series to do more than what they’ve done so far (not so fast, Vitek... you can sit this one out).

At five-on-five, Ilya Samsonov is a perfect 21-for-21 in saving medium-danger shots, and Sergei Bobrovsky has nearly matched him at 28-for-29 (.966); on low-danger shots, it’s Bob who’s perfect (34-for-34) and Samsonov who has allowed just one puck to slip past (36-for-37, .973). On the penalty kill, it’s a similar story - Samsonov is 4-for-4 on medium-danger chances and 6-for-6 on low-danger shots (throw in a 3-for-3 on high-danger opportunities for good measure); Bobrovsky hasn’t been quite as good, going 1-for-2 on medium-danger shots and 15-for-16 (.938) on low.

In other words, in all situations, Samsonov and Bobrovsky have stopped 61 of 63 medium-danger shots they’ve faced (Sammy a perfect 28-for-28) and 97 of 99 low-danger chances. These two Russian netminders have combined to allow just four non-high-danger goals on 162 shots, a .975 save percentage. Raise your hand if you had either of these guys as the best Russian goalie in the League in Round 1.

Of course, not all shots are medium- or low-danger shots, and the two haven’t fared quite as well on high-danger chances (especially after Game 5), placing near the bottom of the League. But both are still among the League leaders in goals saved above expected:

Through Wednesday night
via MoneyPuck

This heat map (which includes the shots that Vanecek faced) shows just how hard it’s been to score in this series from outside the scoring-chance areas (the “home plates” in red and blue):

via NatStatTrick

Thirty goals have been scored on goalies in this series, and 23 of them have been on high-danger shots; no team in the playoffs has scored fewer low-danger goals than the Caps (one, Nicklas Backstrom’s Game 2 power-play tally), and no team in the playoffs has scored fewer medium-danger goals than the Panthers (also one, Aaron Ekblad’s bouncer against Vanecek in the same game). No other series has featured fewer low-/medium-danger goals (Dallas/Calgary is at 11; Tampa/Toronto was at 24 through five games).

We can quibble about culpability on specific goals here and there, but Samsonov has been better than anyone could have reasonably expected... and he’ll probably have to be even better tonight if the Caps’ season is going to continue into the weekend. But that type of performance isn’t unprecedented. In fact, we can all remember just a few years back when the Caps came back from Florida down 3-2 in a series and their goalie shut down the League’s highest-scoring team...

2. Fives Hole

Over the course of the regular season, Alex Ovechkin (0.31), Conor Sheary (0.20), Anthony Mantha (0.19), Lars Eller (0.15), Nic Dowd (0.14), Dmitry Orlov (0.12), Connor McMichael (0.12), Nicklas Backstrom (0.09), Martin Fehervary (0.08), Nick Jensen (0.07), John Carlson (0.06) and Johan Larrson (0.00) combined to average 1.52 five-on-five goals per game.

Through five games in this playoff series, not one of those players has lit the lamp at fives.

In fact, the only forwards with an even-strength goal in the series are Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov (two each), and Marcus Johansson and Garnet Hathaway (one apiece; Trevor van Riemsdyk and Justin Schultz have each also potted one from the blueline).

The 0-fer for the group above comes on 121 shot attempts, 64 shots on goal, 61 scoring chances and 21 high-danger chances at five-on-five. Oof. Here’s what the forwards’ cumulative Goals Above Expected at five-on-five looks like:

via MoneyPuck

For some of these guys (Dowd, Larsson), a goose egg isn’t really unexpected because they’re not creating much, nor are they expected to. But for others, that’s not the case; that’s a goal apiece that Ovechkin, Sheary and Eller are “owed,” around two-thirds of a goal for each of Mantha and Backstrom and so on.

This drought comes one playoff year after the team scored just seven goals at five-on-five in five games against the Bruins (two each from Hathaway and Dowd, one apiece from Tom Wilson, Sheary and Brenden Dillon). In other words, in ten playoff games under Peter Laviolette, the Caps have just 15 five-on-five goals, and not one of them belongs to Alex Ovechkin. Or Nicklas Backstrom. Or Anthony Mantha, Lars Eller, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and so on. Bad luck? Hmm. Ovechkin does have four assists (three this year), but has only managed 21 five-on-five shots on goal in those ten games (nine in five this spring). Laviolette has yet to figure out how to unleash Ovechkin at fives in the playoffs, as a quick look at his individual numbers over his playoff career shows:

Getting old sucks
via NatStatTrick

But enough about last year (and the future?), back to the here-and-now. Over the course of the regular season, the Caps scored 179 five-on-five goals, 2.18 per game; in the playoffs, that average has dropped to 1.60, and if not for an overachieving power play, this series would likely already be over. The Caps have only outscored Florida at fives in one game so far (their Game 3 blowout win), but will probably need to do so tonight to keep the series going... and they’re overdue, almost to the man. And it starts at the top.

3. Top Fore

Unlike their counterparts up front, the Caps’ blueline was relatively healthy and stable during the regular season, with the top two pairs logging more than 900 minutes (only the Flames with three pairs and the Rangers also with two can claim such consistency), and their third pair clocked in at 573 minutes, 44th-most on the circuit. For you visual learners, here’s what that looks like:

Oooh... pretty
via HockeyViz

And while John Carlson and Martin Fehervary may have formed the nominal top pair, it was Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen who were the team’s best duo overall. Their expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) compared favorably with other big-minute pairs, and their actual goals-for percentage was elite... like, “just behind Cale Makar and Devon Toews” elite.

But the playoffs, as they often are, have been different; Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen have been getting caved in. First, a look at expected goals (regular season up top, playoffs below):

via MoneyPuck

The Fehervary-Carlson duo has maintained the same percentage it had during the regular season, albeit with lower xG rates at both ends of the ice. The Justin Schultz-Trevor van Riemsdyk pair, has also more or less held the line, but they’ve seen increases in xG rates for and against.

Orlov and Jensen, though? They’ve dropped off from near 55 percent to just above 40, as their expected goals-for rate has had a slight uptick but their expected goals-against rate has nearly doubled.

On a game-by-game basis, it looks like this:

via MoneyPuck

But what about actual goals? Well, you asked for it (you didn’t ask for it)...

via MoneyPuck

After being on the ice for seven goals-for for every three -against during the regular season, Orlov and Jensen have been outscored 7-1 in the playoffs. Carlson and Fehervary, above-water for the first 82 games, have been outscored 6-2 in the playoffs. Only Schultz and van Riemsdyk (the only two defensemen on the team with a five-on-five goal in the series) are in the black.

To be sure, these goals-for and -against reflect team play more than individual efforts, though we’ve highlighted where some of those for the players mentioned here have been particularly lacking. But the individual numbers, as measured by Game Score, aren’t pretty (especially if you were to remove Carlson’s four power-play points and empty-net goal from the ledger):

via Hockey Stat Cards

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the above, in very small samples (almost certainly massively impacted by score effects), both Orlov and Carlson have been much better apart from their usual partners this postseason:

5v5, Score- and Venue-Adjusted
via NatStatTrick

So would it be a desperation move to switch up what worked so well for 82 games? Yes. Are these desperate times? Also yes.

Martin Fehervary hasn’t been consistently good (or even playable) since December. At a minimum, a Fehervary-van Riemsdyk swap makes sense (and has for a while now). But regardless, the entire defense needs to be better than it was in Game 5; it needs to be as good as it was during the regular season.