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Searching For Killer Instinct

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The Capitals have a history of being unable to put their opponents away

Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

The Capitals lost Game 4 Wednesday night and that has led to some... angst in the Capitals community and for understandable reasons. Since the start of the 2008 NHL Playoffs the Capitals have played in 18 games in which they could eliminate their opponents; they've only won four of them:

Date Opponent Score Series Record Prior To The Game
4/22/2008 PHI 3-2(OTL) 3-3
4/28/2009 NYR 2-1(W) 3-3
5/13/2009 PIT 6-2(L) 3-3
4/23/2010 MTL 2-1(L) 3-1
4/26/2010 MTL 4-1(L) 3-2
4/28/2010 MTL 2-1(L) 3-3
4/23/2011 NYR 3-1(W) 3-1
4/22/2012 BOS 4-3(OTL) 3-2
4/25/2012 BOS 2-1(OTW) 3-3
5/12/2012 NYR 2-1(L) 3-3
5/12/2013 NYR 1-0(L) 3-2
5/13/2013 NYR 5-0(L) 3-3
4/25/2015 NYI 3-1(L) 3-2
4/27/2015 NYI 2-1(W) 3-3
5/8/2015 NYR 2-1(OTL) 3-1
5/10/2015 NYR 4-3(L) 3-2
5/13/2015 NYR 2-1(OTL) 3-3
4/20/2016 PHI 2-1(L) 3-0

The Capitals are 2-3 in series during the Alex Ovechkin era in which they haven't defeated their opponents on the first try (2012 Bruins, 2015 Islanders). That doesn't really mean anything though... does it? The first team to fail to close out a series on multiple attempts was the 2010 squad that lost to Montreal and there are only a few players from that team still on the Capitals roster today: the biggest names being John Carlson, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The latter two have both played well in potential series clinching games but they haven't been particularly productive:

Player G-A-P CF% (All Situations)
Ovechkin 6-5-11 62%
Backstrom 1-4-5 59%

(For Backstrom, that goal came in his first close-out game - Game 7 against the Flyers in 2008.) The overall lack of production is pretty staggering but it's not totally out of place given how the rest of the team has struggled to score goals. The Capitals have scored a grand total of 27 times over the 18 games in our sample, thanks in large part to a team shooting percentage of just 4.5%... and that's simply not going to be enough when your goalies are only stopping 90.9% of the shots that they face.

Braden Holtby's reasonable 91.9 save percentage is overshadowed by his 2-9 record: 1-3 at home (85.6 SV%, 14GA) and 1-6 on the road (94.5 SV%, 13GA) . Holtby has given up two or fewer goals in seven of the 11 potential series clinching games in which he's played.

The poor shooting and goaltending overshadows some solid underlying numbers. The Capitals have an all situations Shots-For percentage of 54.6 and a Corsi-For percentage of 54.5 in the sample but that largely hasn't led to wins.

It's possible that the Capitals really do lack a killer instinct, or that the team is cursed and the referees are always out to get them... but probably not. The franchise's troubled history with 3-1 series leads doesn't increase the chances of the Caps faltering this time, this team sticks to the script... no, no not the Caps' script of blowing leads but the script the rest of the league follows. The one where winning the first three games of a series before the opponent has even two all but guarantees a fourth. This time is different, this year is different... right?