It was never a question of “if,” only of “when,” and in Thursday night’s Game 2, that question was answered.
After a solid overall performance in Game 1, Vitek Vanecek was only able to stop 14 of the 19 Panthers shots he faced (a .737 save percentage) in 40 minutes of hockey before being replaced by Ilya Samsonov for the third period. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2021-22 Washington Capitals goalies!
Per Evolving-Hockey, Vanecek allowed 3.4 goals above expectation, literally the worst start of his career by that metric. (Second worst? His last start of the regular season against the Islanders. Yikes.) MoneyPuck also had him at 3.4. NatStatTrick pegged the number at 3.43. You get the point.
But it wasn’t just the “how many” (but let’s be perfectly clear - it was very much the “how many”), it was also the “how” and the “when.” Florida’s first goal came on a ridiculous bounce (after some questionable in-zone defense), and wasn’t one you’re going to put on the goalie:
Goal number two was a defensive breakdown that Vanecek had no chance on:
That third goal, though? That was a gut-punch:
First, the “how.” Could the Caps’ defense have been better? Absolutely. Lars Eller, for example, could have picked up a man and, y’know, helped out. Still, Money Puck gives that shot a 6.1% chance of going in. Vanecek’s body language tells you everything you need to know about what he thought of letting that one through (five-hole, by the way).
And as bad as the goal itself might have been, the timing was even worse, with the goal coming just 27 seconds after the Caps had halved the Panthers’ 2-0 lead in a game they (the Caps) were still very much dominating.
The fourth goal came off a bad Eller turnover that turned into a 2-on-0, and the fifth on a shot similar to the first goal Vanecek allowed in Game 1, a little bit closer and a great shot, but still above the circles, and a shot a goalie has to have.
You hear a lot about “timely saves.” And, really, almost all saves are timely, especially in the playoffs. But what transpired in the Caps’ cage on Thursday night was hardly new or even rare. On the even of the trade deadline, Washington GM Brian MacLellan had this to say of his young goalies:
“The concerning thing for me is sometimes the goals, the timing of the goals, game-situation goals that some veteran guys would tighten it up and make that save,” MacLellan said. “It’s not the overall save percentage. It’s when and how the goals happen. That’s another thing that can zap momentum from your team and you’re digging a hole and you got to dig out of it.”
In Game 2, it was both “the overall save percentage” and “when and how the goals happen[ed].” Momentum zapped. Hole dug. Series tied.
[Side note: all of the models cited above assign expected goal values by scraping the shot data and essentially comparing shots to similar shots taken before. They (generally) don’t account for the shooter or goalie, and don’t account for things like the bounce off Martin Fehervary on the first goal. So when that shot gets a 2.4 percent chance of scoring, and thus a 97.6 percent chance of not scoring, it reflects particularly poorly on the goalie when it goes in. In reality, Vanecek probably didn’t allow three-plus goals more than expected if we take into account the circumstances of the shots themselves, so take these metrics with a grain of salt.]
2. What About Bob?
Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky, of all people, is killing it.
Through two games, he’s made nearly all the stops he “should” make, and a handful that he might typically not make. Per NatStatTrick, he’s 18-for-18 on medium-danger shots, 26-for-27 on low-danger shots (with the one goal being Nicklas Backstrom’s Game 2 power-play tally, categorized as low-danger due to the angle... your mileage may vary on that one), and 13-for-16 (.813) on high-danger shots. (During the regular season, he had a .910 save percentage on medium-danger shots, .959 on low-, and .845 on high-danger opportunities.) At five-on-five, no goalie that has played in two games so far has a lower average shots-against distance than Bobrovsky.
The Caps aren’t getting “Halak’d,” but given the state of their own goaltending, they’re going to have to put a lot more pucks in the Florida net than they have through two games if they’re going to be competitive in this series.
3. Pretty Tied Up
The goal of any team starting a best-of-seven series on the road is to get a split to steal home-ice advantage.
The Caps did that.
In fact, not only did they do that, but they were clearly the better team during the competitive portions of Games 1 and 2 (before basically flat-lining after failing to score on a mid-second period four-minute power play in Game 2), posting nearly a 3.5 Expected Goals advantage through five periods:
But the Caps (with the very notable exception of Ilya Samsonov) no-showed in the third period of Game 2 and have little if any momentum heading home for Game 3. Andrew Brunette’s Panthers stretched the Caps’ defense and Peter Laviolette’s club wasn’t nearly as structurally disciplined in Game 2 as in Game 1. Pucks are going in at one end of the ice and not the other, and frustration is starting to creep in. Without one of their emotional, physical leaders, the Caps are missing a bit of the spark that’s there when they’re at their best. And now they’re coming home, where they’ve uncharacteristically struggled all year.
(Of course, we’re all old enough to remember another time that the Caps opened the playoffs with two losses to Bobrovsky, yanked their starter in Game 2, and had some success thereafter...)
The Caps can absolutely play with the Panthers, something few observers thought was the case before the series started. Now’s their chance to show that to a home crowd in a Saturday matinee.
As usual, the captain said it best:
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin after a 5-1 loss in Game 2: "Shit happens. Move on. 1-1. How I said, it is a good scenario for us."— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) May 6, 2022