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The Narrative: Sticktoitiveness, Ant-Man Gone Goliath, and the “D” in Defense

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

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Washington Capitals v Florida Panthers - Game One Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

1. Sticktoitiveness

Through the first two periods of their Game 1 win against the Panthers, the Caps generated 24 all-situation scoring chances, 11 of which were high-danger opportunities, 17 and 7 of which, respectively, came at five-on-five. Unfortunately for them, they had only one goal to show for the effort (Tom Wilson’s high-danger, power-play goal).

Over the course of the regular-season, the Caps’ scoring chance shooting percentage clocked in at 15.2 percent in all situations, 14.0% at fives, and their high-danger shooting percentage was 19.6% overall and 18.6% at five-on-five. That’s why their expected goals through 40 minutes was at 2.69 (1.56 at fives)... and why it felt as if the Caps were wasting opportunities (even though Sergei Bobrovsky, it may surprise you to learn, ranked seventh in the League in high-danger save percentage this season; he also stopped all 25 medium- and low-danger shots he faced).

In the third period, Washington scored on both of their high-danger chances (two of their six scoring chances), their numbers ended up in the ballpark of their season averages and their expected goals for aligned roughly with their actual goals (you know, the ones that go up on the scoreboard). It was a quick lesson in statistical regression and trusting the process, even - especially - on a night when Bobrovsky was dialed in.

2. Ant-Man Gone Goliath

When the Caps acquired Anthony Mantha in a trade in which Jakub Vrana went the other way, part of the thinking was that Mantha was more of a “playoff style” player:

“The physicality he brings is strength on the puck,” MacLellan said [at the time]. “He’s a long player, he uses a long stick, he has a good shot. The size factor more translates to skill than physically running over people. He’s a big strong guy that can play a big game and uses his size and strength and length to his advantage. It’s an effective style on the ice.”


“We’ve really liked Anthony for quite a while now,” MacLellan said. “I like a lot of the attributes; the size, the skill, the shot, the scoring ability. He’s a really good skater for his size. I think it’s a player that we’ve liked and talked about a lot in our room and we had a chance to acquire him so we went out and got him.”

Indeed, Mantha put up more playoff points (one) in his first two shifts of Tuesday night’s Game 1 than Vrana has in the 15 playoff games he’s played since opening the scoring in the Caps’ Cup-clinching win in Vegas four years ago. But that’s neither here nor there. What is important is that the Caps expect big things from Mantha and, in Game 1, he delivered:

“Really good,” Laviolette said of Mantha’s level of engagement. “Noticed him all night with his skating, his physical presence, making plays.”

To wit, Mantha had the primary assist on Tom Wilson’s goal, a game- and career-high ten hits, a team-high four shots on goal at five-on-five (in a team-high among forwards 17:36), and an on-ice expected Goals-For (xGF) percentage of 72, as the Caps held an 11-4 edge in scoring chances with Mantha on the ice at fives. That’s a hell of a night’s work... and not necessarily surprising. We talked about Mantha as a potential difference-maker on JRR and tossed his name out as someone who the Caps would need to step up in our latest Roundtable - but his name has popped up elsewhere as well, including at The Athletic:

Who or what is your X-factor in this series?

Pro scout: For the Caps, I think it’s (Anthony) Mantha. He’s a guy who can turn things around physically and offensively. If he’s dialed in physically and plays that tough, playoff hockey, I think he can definitely be an X-factor. He’s also fresher because he missed a lot of the season.

... and Daily Faceoff:

I’m not sure enough people have talked about the impact Anthony Mantha has had on the Capitals’ season. He missed 45 games from November through March. The Caps were 23-17-5 without him, an utterly average record, and they are 21-9-7 when he is in the lineup. He’s been a clear difference maker with 23 points in 36 games. My one real question mark with Mantha is his compete level. When he’s not engaged, his 6-foot-5 frame can be invisible. When he’s on the mark, he’s got the strength and skillset to be a postseason force. Given that Mantha has played just five total playoff games in his seven-year career, he should be plenty motivated.

Mantha is one of those guys for whom a big frame is both a blessing and a curse. If you’ve been paying any attention, you’ve seen exactly what Laviolette means when he says “[t]he size factor more translates to skill than physically running over people” with Mantha; it’s in his wingspan disrupting plays defensively, it’s in his ability to shield the puck with his body and in his lethal shot. But because he goes 6’5”, 234, people expect him to use that frame to deliver crushing hits and intimidated opponents physically the way that some of his teammates do, so when he’s not doing that, his “compete level” is questioned (and it’s not a problem unique to Mantha in hockey).

But on Tuesday night, there were no questions. Only answers... and damn good ones at that.

3. The “D” in Defense

Over the course of the regular season, only four defensemen posted a higher expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) than Dmitry Orlov:

via Evolving-Hockey

That is some damn fine company to be in (and a large part of the reason why, in that preview ep of JRR, we handed out our regular-season MVP (non-Ovechkin division) award to Orlov).

In Game 1, Orlov picked up right where he left off, leading the Caps in five-on-five ice time, generating three individual scoring chances on five shot attempts and notching an assist while posting a 62.69 expected Goals-For (xGF) percentage, despite getting the least favorable zone starts on the team (he was out there for nine defensive-zone faceoffs and just two in the OZ, while starting five shifts in the DZ and just one in the OZ).

In 6:19 of five-on-five ice time against Jonathan Huberdeau (the NHL’s second-leading regular-season scorer), the Caps outshot (attempts) the Panthers 10-6, and had a 6-4 edge in scoring chances. In 6:22 against Sam Bennett, the Caps had a 9-2 scoring chance advantage (but did yield Bennett’s tally on a shot that Orlov and partner Nick Jensen would probably have wanted to challenge earlier). And so on.

Add it all up and, by Game Score, Orlov was the best player on the ice in Game 1:

via Hockey Stat Cards

The Caps’ second pair of Orlov and Jensen has been great all year and Orlov was great (though not perfect) in Game 1. There’s no reason to think that will be changing any time soon.