The Washington Capitals are 35-8-4 (74 points) at the all-star break, their best start in franchise history. Their stranglehold on the Metropolitan Division is now a commanding 15-point lead over the New York Rangers and they are cruising to the best record in the Eastern Conference. Only the Florida Panthers are close and they are 11 points back.
Washington leads the league in scoring (3.32 goals per game) and has the best power play in the NHL (26.8 percent efficiency). Defensively, they allow the second fewest goals against (2.18 per game) and kill 84.7 percent of their penalties, fourth best. They are the overwhelming favorite among coaches to win the Stanley Cup and Vegas bookmakers have installed them as the betting favorite as well.
In November, Micah Blake McCurdy studied regular season qualities from 2007 to 2015 that predicted playoff success. There were three takeaways:
- Offense matters, especially a team’s ability to generate shot attempts at even strength, after adjusting for score effects.
- You need good defense, measured by an ability to suppress shot attempts.
- Above-average regular season goaltending is crucial.
Based on that, here are two teams in the East that could make a deep playoff run, and give Washington some trouble in the process.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After adjusting margin of victory for strength of schedule, Tampa Bay is 0.30 goals per game above average, the fifth best team in the NHL. The Lightning can score (130 goals this season), play defense (49.4 shots against allowed per 60 minutes, seventh lowest rate at even strength), and get good goaltending: .929 and .882 save percentages at even strength and short-handed, respectively.
Its most potent offensive threat, Steven Stamkos, has 21 goals and 17 assists in 49 games — and he isn’t even the team leader in points. That would be Nikita Kucherov (41 points in 49 games), who is continuing his maturation as a scorer from last season.
The Canadiens incredible start saw them win their first nine games of the season and go 18-4-3 before the first of December. Yet they are three points out of a wild-card spot because of the loss of goaltender Carey Price and a lack of offense.
Price was expected to be back sometime in January, but that time line has been pushed back to late February or early March. By then, it could be too late to secure a playoff spot. With Price healthy, the Habs’ goaltending is among the best in the NHL. Before Price was sidelined he posted a .934 save percentage and stopped 86 percent of high-danger shots faced.
Montreal’s offense, while faltering of late, still produces the fourth most attempts per 60 minutes (56.5) while their defense allows the fifth fewest (49.3).
The Canadiens are being given a 30.4 percent chance at making the playoffs, but if they do, and they face the Capitals at any time in the postseason, it could be another upset.
Why not the Florida Panthers?
The Panthers are hot. They lead the Atlantic Division by five points and have a 12-game winning streak this season, plus a three-game streak heading into the all-star break. But they have issues, namely, not enough offense.
After adjusting their even-strength shot attempts for score effects, they produce the second lowest rate in the NHL (46.8). Only the New Jersey Devils are worse (43.3).
That’s simply not good enough for a deep playoff run.