The conversation about the Washington Capitals has morphed in just a short period of time, going from “Will they win the Stanley Cup?” to “Will they make it out of the first round?” to today’s “Will they make the playoffs?”
At the top of the Conference is the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, along with Southeast Division rival Carolina Hurricanes. In the second tier lie the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and the injury-riddled Ottawa Senators. Then it is everyone else making a mad dash for the eighth spot in the East over the second half of the season.
Winning helps. Or at least it should. After the first set of 12 games, the Capitals found themselves dead last and five points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and Southeast Division. Washington then posted a 7-5-0 (including winning seven out of 10) record, accumulating 14 out of 24 points, but is now seven points out of the eighth spot and eight away from the division lead.
This should illustrate just how big a hole they were in after the rough start. With Eastern Conference teams only playing Eastern Conference teams, it becomes difficult to gain any ground on your opponents, even if you are winning and playing well. Yes, they have the home-and-home with Carolina coming up this week, which could help them gain some traction, but the schedule only gets tougher from there.
The Capitals play nine out of next 12 games on the road, including three sets of games back-to-back. They are 3-7-1 on the road this season and have lost four of the six back-to-back games they have played this year.
And it is not just Carolina who is an obstacle to Washington’s playoff chances. The Winnipeg Jets, who have surged ahead of Tampa Bay for the second spot in the Southeast, have played well without the benefit of much puck luck (measured by the advanced stat PDO, which is simply shooting percentage plus save percentage during even strength).
Puck luck tends to even out during the course of a season, so teams with too much (more than 1000) or not enough (less than 1000) tend to drift back toward the average. That’s not to say they will be average, but those extremes generally don’t last long into a season. Just a month ago, 16 teams had a PDO of more than 1000, and now 11 have seen their luck turn cold. Of the 13 with a PDO below 1000, 11 have seen their number rise. Lady luck is fickle that way.
Also of note is each team’s FenwickClose% — which measures the amount of even-strength shots in the team’s favor as a percentage of all the shots taken in a close game (within one goal in the first two periods or tie game in the third or beyond) — to show that while the Tampa Bay Lightning has been a huge beneficiary of “puck luck,” they had little puck possession behind it after you eliminate score effects, so their fall from one of the top spots in the East should not be a surprise. Carolina, on the other hand, should be able to continue to command the lead in the Southeast because of its solid play and continued good fortune. Similar story for Winnipeg. There could be a push from Florida, but injuries there may be too much to mount any sustained playoff run in the second half.
Which brings us back to Washington. They were able to finesse their way to victories while riding the hot glove of Braden Holtby (and post a higher-than-average PDO in the process), but should see a dip in performance on the way – especially with the goaltending. And that FenwickClose% of 48 percent probably won’t be enough to grab hold of a spot in the postseason, either by winning the Southeast Division outright or jumping over seven other teams to grab the eighth seed in the East.
It is a bleak picture, but wins in the upcoming games against Carolina will no doubt help keep Washington in the playoff mix. But based on what we have seen, these Capitals are an average team; even when they play well, they don’t make up enough ground to be taken seriously as a contender.
Neil Greenberg, when he isn’t watching the games, analyzes advanced statistics in the NHL and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd. Follow him on Twitter: @ngreenberg.