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The Narrative: So Special, Second Line Shine, and The “On” In Samsonov

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

Florida Panthers v Washington Capitals - Game Three Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

1. So Special

The Caps’ special teams were up and down all season, with both units going long stretches where they looked unstoppable, and sometimes longer stretches when they looked utterly incapable. Both the power play and penalty kill ended the season on the fritz - the power play was just one for its last 23 on the season, and the penalty kill surrendered six tallies in 13 opportunities over the same six-game span - but both units have shown up for the playoffs in a big way: through three games, the Caps have gone 4-for-12 on the power play and 9-for-9 on the penalty kill. And both units made an impact in Sunday’s Game 3, with the Caps striking twice on the man advantage (T.J. Oshie’s goal in the waning seconds of the first period to tie the game at one before intermission, and Alex Ovechkin’s tally midway through the third that salted away the victory), and the penalty kill holding Florida to four fruitless shots on three power-play chances.

On the shorthanded side of things, the Panthers (who had a top-five power play in the regular season) managed just one high-danger chance and four scoring chances in 5:57 with the extra man in Game 3. Only four of their 13 shot attempts ended up on net, with the Caps blocking five.

As for the Caps’ power play, in 9:37, they put seven shots on net, three of which were classified as high-danger, including Oshie’s goal (but not Ovechkin’s). Note to analytic models: when Alex Ovechkin is this wide open for a one-timer, it’s a high-danger chance:

For the series, the Caps have dominated the special teams goals (4-0) and percentages, and in their two wins, they’ve held the Panthers to just a single high-danger chance, six scoring chances and seven shots on goal in 9:57 of five-on-four time (despite missing one of their top penalty killers). Here’s how that looks:

via NatStatTrick

Just that one shot from below and between the dots. Impressive.

Rookie coach says what?

Meanwhile, the Caps’ power play has scored in each game. Needless to say, if the Caps can continue to post a positive special teams goal differential in each game, that’ll help their chances of winning games and the series immensely.

2. Second Line Shine

We’re three games into this series and we’ve already spent a Narrative bullet point talking about how good Anthony Mantha is, but this will be another one. Mantha was tremendous in Game 1 alongside Lars Eller, and was bumped up to the second line for Game 3 where he was... tremendous.

Through three games, Mantha leads the Caps in five-on-five shots (8), shot attempts (12), hits (17), and penalties drawn (3), and leads forwards in ice time (43:37). He has a positive shot differential (53.2%; one of two Caps forwards, Conor Sheary is the other), and a team-leading 63.1 expected goals-for percentage at fives.

Mantha has pretty clearly been the Caps’ best forward at five-aside, and, in Game 3, that was on full display:

Mantha finished Game 3 with a pair of assists (he picked up the secondary on the Ovechkin PPG), four shots on goal and a 63 percent expected goals-for percentage... and he arguably wasn’t the best player on his line. That distinction may belong to Marcus Johansson, who scored the game-winning goal (above) and threaded this absurd pass to Trevor van Riemsdyk to double the Caps’ lead:

(Seriously, though, Mantha’s work on that goal, and it didn’t even earn him an assist.)

By Gamescore, Johansson and Mantha were the game’s two best players (with each playing their third-best game of the season):

via Hockey Stat Cards

In Game 3, the Caps’ second line (which, by the way, is centered by a future hall-of-famer who had a couple of helpers) outscored the Panthers 2-0 when they were on the ice at five-on-five and controlled more than 60 percent of the shot attempts (and nearly 70 percent of the shots on goal). On an afternoon when the top line wasn’t at its best, it’s real nice to have a second line that plays like a first line. And guys like Mantha and Johansson are showing they can play anywhere and make just about any line better; that’s axe-worthy stuff right there.

3. The “On” In Samsonov

And where there’s an axe, there’s a shield.

Reasonable minds differed as to whom the Caps should start in net for Game 3. Vitek Vanecek was solid in Game 1, but struggled in Game 2; Ilya Samsonov terrific in relief.

Peter Laviolette went with Samsonov, and almost immediately likely regretted that decision, with the Russian netminder getting beat by a Jonathan Huberdeau shot from 41 feet out and outside the dots not even three minutes in. MoneyPuck pegs Huberdeau’s shot as 2.6 percent likely to have gone in; Evolving-Hockey says 1.8 percent.

It was a great shot, sure, but one that an NHL goalie (at home in a pivotal playoff game) has to have. And it was the only one all afternoon that Sammy didn’t stop.

Samsonov was terrific on Saturday (that shot excepted), stopping everything he should stop and a bunch that he typically might not:

On the afternoon, Samsonov stopped 29 of 30 shots, and saved 1.81 goals above expected per NatStatTrick, 1.14 per Money Puck, and 1.7 per Evolving-Hockey. But aside from the aggregate numbers, Samsonov made the desperately needed “timely” stops, none bigger than the one on Aleksander Barkov that led to the Marcus Johansson game-winning goal nine seconds later:

Through four 2022 playoff periods now, Samsonov is 15-for-15 on high-danger shots against, 12-for-12 on medium-danger, and 18-for-19 on low-danger shots, per NST, while facing the lowest average shot distance (i.e. the closest shots) of any goalie in the playoffs. He’s fourth in the League in goals saved above expected (first in GSAx/60 among goalies with at least two appearances). It’s one game (and change), and we’ve seen great games from him before.

But Caps fans have been wanting to love Ilya Samsonov for a few years now; we just may look back on Saturday afternoon as the day his play finally let us: