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Drawing Even(ish) at Even Strength

The Caps’ formula of coin flip hockey plus a special-teams edge might just be enough to take down the Panthers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the Caps’ series against the high-powered Florida Panthers, any “formula” that involved the Caps winning likely involved the Caps mucking up the neutral zone and playing Dale Hunter-style coin-flip hockey.

We’ve got a (woefully inadequate) three-game sample, but based on that, have the Caps been able to stymie the Panthers and play them to a draw?

Well, sort of.

To illustrate what the Caps have done, it’s worth recognizing just how dominant the Panthers were offensively this year. To start, here’s how the Panthers ranked offensively in rate-stats at five on five:

Panthers Offensive Dominance

Statistic per 60 minutes Panthers Total NHL Ranking
Statistic per 60 minutes Panthers Total NHL Ranking
Shot attemps/60 65.72 1st
Shots on goal/60 37.25 1st
Expected goals/60 3.16 1st
High danger chances/60 14.29 1st
Goals/60 3.33 1st

First across the board. Not bad, right? Well, the Panthers offensive dominance is even stronger than that. Let’s look at the same table, but add an extra column for ranking NHL-wide over the last 15 years:

Panthers Offensive Dominance over Last 15 Years

Statistic per 60 minutes Panthers Total NHL Ranking NHL Ranking over the Last 15 Years
Statistic per 60 minutes Panthers Total NHL Ranking NHL Ranking over the Last 15 Years
Shot attemps/60 65.72 1st 1st
Shots on goal/60 37.25 1st 1st
Expected goals/60 3.16 1st 1st
Goals/60 3.33 1st 1st

Offense has gone up over the last few years…but even then, the Panthers might be the most dominant offensive team of the last 15 years. (538 took a look at the Panthers offense last month and came to a similar conclusion.)

So if the Caps were going to keep up with the Panthers, it was imperative for them to at least slow down the Panthers’ five-on-five attack. Here’s how the Panthers have done so far in the first 3 games of the series:

Panthers Performance During the Playoffs

Statistic per 60 minutes Panthers Total Increase or decrease from regular season
Statistic per 60 minutes Panthers Total Increase or decrease from regular season
Shot attemps/60 65.53 -0.19
Shots on goal/60 35.82 -1.43
Expected goals/60 2.96 -0.2
High danger chances/60 12.23 -2.06
Goals/60 3.49 0.16

From a top-level look, the Caps are perhaps slowing down the Panthers a tiny bit, but aren’t pulling a dramatic reversal. The Panthers shot attempts are basically the same, though they’re getting slightly fewer high-danger chances (perhaps leading to some angry comments by their coach about a lack of will). Goals are almost the same too.

But does this tell the whole story? Not really. Here’s a look at the series 5v5 expected goals chart, with one particular stretch highlighted:

Panthers vs. Caps 5v5 expected goals performance.

What we see here is the Caps basically playing the Panthers to a draw by suppressing Florida’s offense, with the giant exception of the third period of Game 2 (roughly highlighted above). Now you wouldn’t exactly say that being down 4 goals “excuses” a miserable stretch, but it perhaps contextualizes it.

Granted, every team would look dramatically better if you removed their worst stretch. However, in a seven-game series, it is paramount to recover from a weak point quickly, and the Caps were able to move on from the miserable third period in Game 2 and fight things to a draw in game 3.

As we’ve said throughout this series, if you’re playing a superior opponent, it’s not a bad idea to muck things up and limit the total number of chances. If the Caps can keep doing that and also keep winning the special teams battle? Well, playoff hockey might continue for a bit in DC.