First there was Jaroslav Halak, swarmed by his Montreal Canadiens teammates as they shoved the net out of the way to properly hug him. Seven years later, there was Marc-Andre Fleury and the visible smile under his mask as he celebrated with his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates. The common thread between the two goaltenders was the role they played in the Capitals’ two most devastating playoff failures, two series in which Washington seemed to be the better team, vastly outshooting their opponent but stymied by brick walls in net.
Enter Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky, the flexible and acrobatic Russian who hopes to add his name to the list of netminders who have crushed the Capitals’ Stanley Cup dreams. Washington’s strategy against him might run counter to those past failed playoff runs, when they funneled puck after puck at the net. This time, the Capitals are firm believers in less being more.
Washington took the fewest shots in the league this season yet still won its third straight Metropolitan Division title, scoring 3.12 goals per game, the NHL’s ninth-best offense. External playoff expectations are tepid because the pedestrian shot generation suggests the team has over-performed its poor underlying numbers all season.
The Capitals would argue there’s a method behind the madness, that as the team had to replace 60 goals after offseason roster turnover, it compensated for a less talented and less experienced roster not playing in the offensive zone as much by making the most of its time when there. They’d agree that they often gave up too many scoring chances, but they also didn’t fret over their own shot quantity, focusing instead on creating scoring opportunities that even the best goaltenders can’t stop.
“We’re looking at high-danger stuff versus just throwing pucks to the net for volume,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I mean, it’s like we’re too poor to buy something cheap. So, why cheapen the product if you have no chance of scoring?”
Shot attempts — on goal, missed or blocked — have been a popular means of measuring a team’s play because a team must possess the puck for any of those three events to happen. More shot attempts would then correlate with more possession, generally a good formula for winning. It all speaks to a conventional wisdom: More shots mean more chances to score. And more goals means more wins, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Going back to the 2005-06 season, 10 of the past 12 eventual Stanley Cup winners took at least 50 percent of the score-adjusted even-strength shot attempts during the regular season.
The Capitals finished the 2017-18 regular season sixth from the bottom in that category, averaging just 47.9 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when a game was within one goal. And they’re one of seven playoff teams, nearly half the postseason field, with a shot-attempt percentage below 50. Though the underlying numbers indicated Washington didn’t play with the puck for the majority of its games, the Capitals scored 197 even-strength goals, sixth most in the NHL and just one goal fewer than last season’s team, which took 51.4 percent of shot attempts.
“I don’t think shot volume is overrated, but you can affect two things: You can affect shot volume and you can affect shooting percentage,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “So, you concentrate on affecting shooting percentage and doing whatever you think is important to affect shooting percentage to increase your goals percentage.”
That’s where goaltending coach Scott Murray comes in. In addition to working with netminders Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, Murray has also helped the team’s skaters understand a goaltender’s perspective — and more specifically, how to hurt them most.
“In hockey today, you try and create goals that goalies can’t stop,” Holtby said. “There’s some that you can’t do anything about, no one can, and that’s what we’re trying to create.”
Holtby was a victim of that a year ago. The Penguins took just 46.2 percent of the even-strength shot attempts last postseason en route a second straight Stanley Cup championship, and in the second-round series against the Capitals, Washington dominated with 229 five-on-five shots to Pittsburgh’s 162. The Capitals took 111 more shot attempts, and they had more of the high-danger scoring chances, as they’re judged by Natural Stat Trick. A shot’s quality has typically been classified by its location and angle — the closer to the net, the more dangerous.
But MacLellan said quality is subjective, and the Capitals examine more than location to determine it. Trotz once used an example that if a goaltender has a post sealed, but a shooter takes several whacks at a puck in that spot anyway, it counts as several high-danger chances, though the puck arguably had little to no chance of going in because the shooter just kept hitting it into the goalie’s pad. MacLellan declined to specify how the Capitals judge quality, but Washington is likely tracking the path a puck takes before it becomes an unblocked shot attempt. Steve Valiquette, a former NHL goaltender, started Clear Sight Analytics, which has catalogued every shot sequence that resulted in a shot on goal for the past three seasons.
“I know unequivocally that when a goalie has more than half of a second of clear sight on the puck, the puck only goes into the back of the net 2.7 percent of the time,” Valiquette said. “So, clearsighted shots are typically about 60 to 70 percent of all of the shots taken in a hockey game. If the pass goes across the ice to another player and he receives it and then shoots it, well, those go in 31 percent of the time. And on and on and on. A breakaway goes in 30 percent of the time. A partial breakaway goes in 27 percent of the time. A rebound off a wraparound goes in 22 percent of the time.”
Though the Capitals pummeled the Penguins in shot volume a year ago, Valiquette said Pittsburgh took slightly more shots Clear Sight Analytics would deem mid- or high-percentage even-strength shots, meaning the Penguins had at least a 9 percent chance of resulting in a goal. In a tight seven-game series, that slight edge might have made the difference, and Holtby argued that seeing fewer dangerous shots is harder than stopping a lot of shots of mixed difficulty.
His save percentage during the regular season was .925, and it plummeted to .887 in that series against the Penguins. Bobrovsky, the Vezina Trophy winner last season, had a .931 save percentage during the season, and it fell to .882 in Columbus’s series against Pittsburgh last season. In the Stanley Cup finals between the Predators and Penguins, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne saw his .918 regular season save percentage drop to .888.
“Pittsburgh’s a team that they don’t waste a lot of shots,” Holtby said. “There’s nothing better for an opposing goalie than easy shots. It creates confidence.”
It’s how a hot goalie gets hot. Washington got stung by shot volume in 2010, when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals took 292 five-on-five shots to the Canadiens’ 194 in a devastating first-round loss.
“You’ve got to come up with something different,” MacLellan said. “You have to come up with some kind of things you deem important to create offense. It can’t be just shooting pucks at the net.”
Said Trotz: “Any goalie will tell you, if a goalie has to move two feet, then his save percentage is going to be pretty good. If he has to move four, it’s going to go down. If he has to move eight, it’s really going to go down. And so, teams are looking at breaking down goalies and looking for different ways of creating offense, saying yeah, we get shots, but really, they’re not great scoring chances. We need to create great scoring chances, rather than just shots.”
To Trotz’s point, Valiquette’s analysis has shown a trend of lateral plays leading to goals, and several Capitals players have said that Washington has introduced more of that into its offense. As an example, Valiquette said that if forward T.J. Oshie hypothetically skates into the slot and takes a clear five-on-five shot from there, it has an 11 percent chance of getting past the goaltender, but if Oshie receives a puck from the other side of the ice in that same location, then there’s a 31 percent chance that shot scores because the pass across forces the goaltender to rotate his head and open his legs to move. Creating traffic in front of the net has also become more sophisticated — moving screens that make it even more difficult for the goaltender to see the puck.
It’s the quality that’s tricky, not the quantity.
“Finally, people are figuring out how to score goals,” Holtby said. “Really, it’s always been the whole, shoot as much as you can and hope they go in. There’s some goal-scorers who figure it out. Goaltending, the last 20 years or so, it’s been a very specific coaching mentality, and we’ve looked at tendencies and all that, and I think it’s coming full circle on us. Scorers and shooters are starting to look at the game that way and figuring out what’s difficult for a goalie — because it’s not usually what people think.”
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