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Uneven at Even Strength

Through the first two games of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Penguins, the Capitals have outscored their opponent 5-3 at even strength and have won a pair of one-goal games. Of the even strength goals scored in the two games, Alexander Ovechkin, David Steckel and Sidney Crosby each have two, with Tomas Fleischmann and Mark Eaton scoring the others. No Cap has worse than a minus-one rating (and seven are at plus-two), and only Crosby is better than plus-one on the other side (Evgeni Malkin is a minus-three).

Why do these numbers matter? Because they’re deceiving.

The Pens have outshot the Caps 54-47 at five aside and have dominated the even-strength play for stretches at a time. If not for Simeon Varlamov‘s .944 even strength save percentage (and Marc-Andre Fleury‘s .894), this series could look very different.

That’s a huge “if,” of course, and not all shots are created equal, but to get a better feel for just how much better the Pens have been than the Caps overall at even strength, Pittsburgh skaters are averaging a +3.6 Corsi Rating for the series (making the average Cap -3.6 if you count John Erskine and Tyler Sloan as one). Put another way, the average Pen has directed seven more shots towards the net at even strength than his Cap counterpart through two games.

On an individual level, Alex Ovechkin (as you might expect) is leading the Caps at plus-12, twice Tom Poti‘s total, three times Sergei Fedorov‘s and 12 times Viktor Kozlov‘s. Those four – the top line and Poti – are the only Caps on the positive side of the ledger through two games. The second line is a combined minus-26, and Shaone Morrisonn is last on the team at minus-14 (huge minutes against Sidney Crosby will do that to you). Considering that most of these guys had outstanding Corsi Ratings during the regular season, it’s fair to expect more from them now.

For Pittsburgh, the story is of course rosier, and they have four blueliners alone (and eight skaters) who are at or above Poti’s plus-six, led by Brooks Orpik‘s plus-15 (which leads all Pens – Crosby is plus-10, as is Tyler Kennedy, and Ruslan Fedotenko is tops among Pitt forwards at plus-14). Even the much-maligned Malkin comes in at a cool plus-three. All this from a Pens team that wasn’t very good at all in terms of Corsi Rating during the regular season. Granted, much of that was before their coaching change, but you’d think that even strength should be an area in which the Caps would have the upper hand, but in terms of puck possession and territorial advantage, that hasn’t been the case yet.

Given that the series now shifts to Pittsburgh, where Dan Bylsma will get to match his lines however he so desires, this aspect of the game becomes even more significant. If Bylsma wants to get Malkin away from Poti and Milan Jurcina, he’ll have every chance to. If he doesn’t like the Crosby line having to face the Steckel line, he can throw ’em out against Fedorov or Nicklas Backstrom. Point being, the Pens have had the better of the even strength play so far (everywhere other than where it counts, that is), and now they have the literal home ice advantage of having the last line change.

To be sure, the Caps have been quite good five-on-five this spring, and have the results to show for it so far in this series. But they need to get better in this area or those results may start to reflect what’s happening on the ice a little more accurately.

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