SAN JOSE – With the Washington Capitals trailing the Los Angeles Kings, 3-0, through two periods on Wednesday night, the game seemed to spell the end of a streak. But then the Capitals scored three unanswered goals in the third period to force overtime, and that meant they would play a 12th straight one-goal game.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Washington set the record for consecutive one-goal games when it played its 10th straight against Boston on Saturday.
“It’s just weird how it is,” defenseman Karl Alzner said recently. “I don’t think it makes too much of a difference. Teams are playing us hard, and we’re battling to find ways to win games against tough opponents. It just works out that way. I think this is the time of year where things tighten up. Teams that aren’t in the hunt are playing loose, and they’re harder to play against. Teams that are in the hunt are playing hard, so I think games just end up being a little bit tighter than normal. …
“I don’t know. I guess we’re a team that likes being in the talks of weird records this season. I don’t know why, but we just are.”
Is it a good thing the Capitals (49-13-5; 103 points) are playing in so many one-goal games, a potential preparation for the playoffs? To that question, Washington Coach Barry Trotz wanted to know the team’s record in those situation? Answer: 8-3-1.
“This time of year, you’re playing good teams, and it’s going to be tight,” Trotz said. “You’ve got to be comfortable playing in games that maybe feel a little uncomfortable, when a team’s pushing or you’re trying to catchup. We’re good with that. That’s playoff hockey. I’d rather have a real hard game like we did in Boston that’s tight like that than a loose 6-0 win over someone or something like that or a loss. It pushes players to be better, forces us to keep our game sharp.”
If the goal is feeling comfortable being uncomfortable, then the Capitals have seemingly mastered that. Last year, Washington’s win percentage of one-goal games was .457, and this year, it’s .694, which is first in the league. A trend of oft-written poor starts has likely contributed to the close games, and the Capitals are the only team above .500 when allowing the first goal.
Of the 240 individual team seasons since the start of the 2007-08 campaign, not one team that had a worse first-period goal differential than this year’s Caps have right now has won the Cup. Or made the Finals. And only two of the 77 teams with that distinction (of a worse goal differential) even made the Conference Finals.
Now that is, of course, in part because those teams – the “worse first-period goal differential than this year’s Caps” teams – tend not to make the playoffs at all. Of the 240 seasons we’re looking at, only 77 (32%) had a worse differential than the Caps, and only 17 of those clubs (22%) made the post-season. Eight flamed out in Round 1, seven in Round 2 and two lost in the Conference Finals (the 2007-08 Flyers and 2009-10 Canadiens). That’s probably because teams that post bad numbers tend to be bad teams, not good teams that are snoozing through the first twenty (like this year’s Caps).
“Teams play very solid against us if they get the lead, and they try to protect the lead because they know that we have offensive skill and offensive opportunity,” Alex Ovechkin said. “If we score the first goal, it’s a totally different game. They try to bounce back and they try to tie the game, and they open up. For us, it’s the most important thing to have a good start and try to get a lead first.”
Said Brooks Orpik: “It’s a tough league to come back in. I don’t think we should get too used to doing that. … We want to break that trend as soon as possible. We’ve been talking about it, even when it seems like we have good starts, we find ourselves down, 1-0. It’s been frustrating.”
And then there’s this from my colleague Neil Greenberg:
Historically, a team that leads the league in one-goal wins usually has a disastrous playoff run. Since the 2005-06 season, just two, the 2008-09 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2013-14 Anaheim Ducks, have made it past the second round. One, the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning, didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. That’s because the really good teams tend to win by larger margins.
Take last year’s Stanley Cup winner, the Chicago Blackhawks, for example. Just 14 of their 40 non-shootout wins came with a one-goal margin. The champion a year earlier, the Los Angeles Kings, saw just 13 of their 38 non-shootout wins have the narrowest of margins. The Capitals, on the other hand, are tied for the league lead this season with 21 one-goal wins out of 45.
As Greenberg goes on to point out, when adjusting the Capitals’ overall margin of victory for strength of schedule, the rash of one-goal games isn’t so concerning. Six of Washington’s last seven one-goal games have been against teams that would be in the playoffs if the postseason started today. In those six games, the Capitals’ record is 3-2-1.
“I think we recognize the quality of opponent,” Trotz said after a 2-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks. “There’s no panic on our bench, and I’ve said that all year. You get scored on in the first minute, and we probably look at it as an opportunity. We’ve got 59 minutes to get this thing tied up versus getting scored on late. But we’re okay, and there’s no panic. I think our game has been getting stronger.”