The Washington Capitals find themselves down 2-0 in their Stanley Cup playoff first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a stunning turn of events considering Coach Barry Trotz’s team had a two-goal lead in each contest and was playing at home. To add insult to injury, both games were decided in overtime, making Washington just the sixth team in NHL history to lose the first two games of a seven-game series in OT at home. The five teams before them all lost their series.
Both losses can be traced back to poor decision-making and ill-timed penalties. That Columbus is drawing penalties and the Capitals are showing a lack of discipline isn’t odd — the Blue Jackets’ penalty differential (plus-11) ranked 11th during the regular season, while the Capitals ranked 28th (minus-34) — but there is another, bigger problem for Washington: The Capitals aren’t getting nearly enough production at even strength from their star players.
Credit Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for some of that. The 29-year-old two-time Vezina winner as the league’s top goalie has stopped 56 of 58 even-strength shots and all 22 even-strength high-danger chances, those in the slot and the crease, in this series. But while the Capitals put a lot of shots on goal in Game 2, their volume of high-danger chances — shots with a strong likelihood of finding the back of the net — hasn’t been there.
The Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has outchanced the Blue Jackets 10-7 in 25 minutes 19 seconds of even-strength ice time, with high-danger scoring chances in their favor 4-1. But Ovechkin’s individual production has seen a tremendous decline so far: He created 12.1 scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength during the regular season but is now producing 5.3 per 60. Likewise, defenseman John Carlson has declined from 5.1 during the regular season to 1.6 against Columbus.
The second line featuring Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie has also been on the right side of the scoring chances, both overall (14-12) and in high-danger areas (5-1). But they, like Ovechkin’s line, are without an even-strength goal. And therein lies the problem: The only players with an even-strength goal for Washington are depth forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle.
Some of that futility is offset by the Capitals’ five power-play goals in 13 opportunities, but for a team to have playoff success, it needs to dominate five-on-five. The Vegas Golden Knights, for example, enjoy a 3-0 series lead thanks in large part to a 5-to-1 even-strength goal edge. The San Jose Sharks have outscored the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 at even strength and are on pace to upset their playoff opponent after taking a 2-0 series lead on the road. The Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are the top three for even-strength goals scored per 60 minutes, in that order, and they are 6-1 this postseason.
The Penguins had a postseason-high 57 percent of even-strength goals in their favor during last year’s Stanley Cup run. A year before, also a championship year for Pittsburgh, the number was 55 percent. This is a pivotal statistic.
It may already be too late for Washington: Teams with home-ice advantage that fall behind 2-0 in a first-round series have only come back to advance 9 out of 33 times (27.3 percent). If the Capitals want to become the 10th team to pull off an improbable comeback, they must create more chances at even strength.
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