Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fancy Stats | Analysis

The Capitals may be in first place, but they sit on a throne of lies

March 7, 2018 at 10:37 AM

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby is 3-6-2 since February with an .872 save percentage. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Washington Capitals, fresh off an exhilarating win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday at the 2018 Stadium Series game, laid an egg on the road in Anaheim Tuesday night, falling 4-0 to the Ducks.

The Capitals still hold the top spot in the Metropolitan division, but that’s tenuous, at best. On Feb.1 they had a five-point lead on the New Jersey Devils, who were second in the division, and a six-point lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were third. Heading into Wednesday night’s games, the Caps have a one-point lead over Pittsburgh and a two-point lead over the Philadelphia Flyers — two teams surging in recent weeks — giving Washington a 40 percent chance of holding on to the division lead once the postseason starts.

Losing ground in the division is the result of two big problems. First, the team is benefiting from an inflated goal differential despite being outshot throughout the 2017-18 campaign. Second, their human goal-eraser, Braden Holtby, who helped wipe out some of the negative effects of the shot disparity, has been allowing goals at an alarming rate in recent weeks.

Related: [Braden Holtby struggles again as Caps come out flat and fall to Ducks]

But start with the shooting gallery that is the Caps’ end of the ice. Washington sees just 48 percent of all shot attempts and scoring chances in its favor at even strength, placing it 24th and 26th in the NHL this season, respectively. When you factor in their shot quality, or lack thereof, its actual even-strength goal differential of plus-9 drops to minus-21, the second-worst expected differential after the cellar-swelling Buffalo Sabres. Since 2007-08, the first year data is available, there have been 23 teams that have a Corsi rate of under 50 percent, a positive goal differential and a negative expected goal differential. Nine of those teams failed to make the postseason, seven were defeated in the first round and five others were bounced in the second round. Only the 2007-08 and 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins were able to venture as far as the Stanley Cup Final. If there is one thing the Capitals — and Coach Barry Trotz — can’t afford, it’s another first- or second-round flame out.

Compounding Washington’s issues on the ice is the poor play of Holtby. Early in the season, Holtby’s goaltending helped Washington get some wins despite the lopsided shot totals against them. Now? Not so much.

Pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots in Tuesday’s loss in Anaheim, Holtby’s save percentage is .907, the lowest of his career and significantly below the league average (.914).

“He hasn’t had a real good stretch,” Trotz said. “He’s going to work with our goaltending coaches and get his game in order. He’s won a lot of games for us. He’s an elite goaltender in this league. Everybody goes through some dry spells and he’s having one right now really.”

To be fair, the root cause of Holtby’s “dry spell” is Washington’s defense, which allows 33 even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes with Holtby in net, the second-most among netminders playing at least 1,500 minutes in 2017-18. Almost 13 of those (38 percent) are from the high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease, also the second-highest among this group. At even strength, the 33 scoring chances per 60 minutes is the most Holtby has faced since 2014-15. When on the penalty kill he faces 62 scoring chances per 60 minutes, also the highest over the past four seasons.

Because of the deluge of scoring chances, the Capitals need a goaltender in net who can best stand up to the barrage, and right now that appears to be backup Philipp Grubauer.

Related: [Capitals could turn to Philipp Grubauer in net ‘for a bit’ as Braden Holtby continues to struggle]

Grubauer faces a similar rate of scoring chances and has a higher rate of saves against those from the dangerous areas like the slot and the crease at all strengths, making him a safer bet for Washington in the short term. Even after we adjust for the smaller sample of Grubauer’s 645 shots against compared to Holtby’s 1,468 this season, we can be reasonably sure Grubauer’s high-danger rate on the low end (.853 after adjusting for sample size) is better than Holtby at the top end of his range in 2017-18 (.787).

Does a change in the cage solve all of Washington’s problems? No, but at least it will help mitigate the other glaring weaknesses the team has as they get ready for the postseason.

Read more NHL:

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Capitals sing Navy’s praises, and NHL may hold more games at service academies

Four years ago, Barry Trotz sought to unite the Caps with a trip to the Naval Academy

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Neil Greenberg is a staff writer with The Washington Post whose beat is sports analytics. His analysis and insight can be found on the Fancy Stats blog, where he covers all pro sports, as well as college football and basketball.

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