The Capitals have showed they are a very tough team to beat when they are firing on all cylinders, but there is a lot more than meets the eye. In fact, there may be a few things we think we know that are really just mirages.
The old Alex Ovechkin is back. (Not quite … )
A few weeks ago Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz was “concerned” about Ovechkin after a slow start to the season put the superstar winger on “only” a 37-goal pace. Before that Ovechkin was seen at practice putting in extra work in front of the net in hopes of creating an offensive spark though tip-ins and deflections, a departure from the one-timers that have been featured on highlight reels for the past 12 years.
And then the Great Eight, on his first shift against the Penguins on Wednesday night, needed all but 35 seconds to race down the right side of the ice, cut into the slot and rocket a wrist shot past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for his 1,000 career point, announcing to the world reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
But Ovechkin is on pace for 42 goals in 2016-17 — still a ton, but still a drop from the 50-plus he’s scored in each of the last three seasons — and is averaging fewer than four shots per game for the first time since 2011-12 (the only other time his shot rate has dipped that low). At least at even strength, the declining production is perhaps worse than it seems.
In October through November, Ovechkin produced at least 20 total even-strength shot attempts per 60 minutes, showing a willingness to fire pucks from almost anywhere. In January, that has decreased to 14.7 per 60, dragging his overall rate significantly lower than when Dale Hunter and Adam Oates were behind the bench for the team.
And then there is the declining time on ice per game. In an effort to keep the 31-year-old fresh for the playoffs, Trotz has held Ovechkin to less than 19 minutes per game for the first time in his NHL career. That, too, will diminish Ovechkin’s production from the eye-popping stats we are used to seeing from the Great Eight.
The defense is better. (Actually, no, it’s not.)
The season before Trotz took over, the Capitals allowed an average of 2.79 goals per game, placing them 21st in the NHL. The following offseason, the club signed former Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, and dramatically improved the blueline. That season, 2014-15, Washington lowered its goals against to 2.43 per game. Last year only the Anaheim Ducks were better at stopping pucks from going into the net. As of Thursday, no team is better than the Capitals (2.00) this season.
However, the Capitals are allowing more even-strength scoring chances than they did a year ago after adjusting for score effects and, as a result, would be expected to have a higher goals-against per game mark based on the location of those shots. After factoring that in for all man-power situations, Washington’s expected goals-against per 60 drops to 20th in the NHL (2.74).
Braden Holtby is not as good as last year. (Or, he’s even better.)
Holtby won the Vezina trophy last season after leading the league in wins (48 in a league-high 68 games played) with the eighth-highest save percentage (.922). The wins aren’t coming as easily this year (20-8-4) nor is the workload as heavy (33 starts out of 41 team games) but he already has two more shutouts than he did all of last season.
Much of the improvement comes at even strength — Holtby has stopped 157 out of 184 high-danger shots (85.3 percent compared to 82.4 percent in 2015-16) and has had to deal with an increased rate of rebounds and shots against off the rush.
Overall, they look less like a Cup-contender than last season. (Pump those brakes right now.)
The biggest knock on Washington, especially in the Ovechkin-era, has been its inability to get past the second round of the playoffs. This year could be different.
After adjusting for score effects, the Capitals are putting 53.6 percent of even-strength shot attempts in their favor, the third-most in the NHL. Going back to the 2005-06 season, 10 of the past 12 eventual Cup winners put at least half of these adjusted shot attempts in their favor during the regular season. The two outliers, the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes (48.2 percent) and the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins (48.4 percent), were close. In addition to those two, only one other team in the past 11 seasons has reached the Stanley Cup finals with a score-adjusted Corsi percentage of less than 50 percent: the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins (45.7 percent).
The 2006 Hurricanes and 2009 Penguins are also the only two teams to win the Stanley Cup after ranking outside of the top 10 for score-adjusted Corsi percentage. The past five champions were all in the top five.
Last season’s Capitals team was tremendous, winning the President’s Trophy by 11 points over the next closest team. But the Caps ranked just 10th in score-adjusted Corsi. That fact should be very encouraging for Washington fans, even if the Caps aren’t sitting atop the standings through 41 games.