For the third straight year the Washington Capitals will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Two years ago the Penguins dispatched the Capitals in six games en route to winning the Stanley Cup. In 2017 Pittsburgh needed seven games, but the end result for the franchise was the same: a parade ending at Point State Park while Washington went home in Round 2.
This time should be different. I know, you’ve heard that before, but here are three big reasons for optimism in Washington.
Pittsburgh is peaking too soon
The Penguins averaged 4.7 goals per game in their series against the Philadelphia Flyers with 16 players registering at least a point in the first round. Sidney Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel tied for the team lead in goals (six) and points (13) in addition to Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust pitching in three goals each. However, based on the location, angle and whether the shot attempt occurred on a power play, excluding the empty-net goal, Pittsburgh was only expected to score 16 goals, not 27, in that series.
In addition, Crosby, instead of six goals at even strength, shouldn’t even have one, after producing just eight scoring chances — three from the slot or crease — all series. Crosby’s elite talent has often allowed him to outpace expectations, but even he would be hard-pressed to match what he did in the first round. Quibble if you want, but it is highly unlikely Crosby will continue to convert 35 percent of his shots — 60 percent at even strength — for much longer. It’s also unlikely his line will convert 24 percent of its opportunities throughout the playoffs.
Matt Murray’s job could get a lot tougher
Pittsburgh’s high scoring has made it easy for Murray to get wins based on his win threshold, which measures how difficult it is for a goalie to earn a win with his team. The formula is simply shots-against minus goals for divided by shots against, which provides the save percentage at which the team would post a goal differential of zero over the course of the season. If the goalie’s save percentage is above that number, the team is likely to win more than it loses, while anything below the threshold means that the team should end up with a sub-.500 record based on the scoring rates in the shootout era.
The Penguins scored 4.8 goals per 60 minutes while allowing 25 shots against per 60 this postseason. That gives Murray a win threshold of .808, easier to attain than his regular-season win threshold of .900. In other words, if Pittsburgh’s offense takes a step back for any reason, Murray will need to be better than he has been. If both the offense and defense regress, the Capitals have a chance to run up the score and take the edge in the series.
Holtby’s win threshold in the playoffs, by comparison, is .889. However, Washington has not been nearly as lucky as Pittsburgh, converting on 7.5 percent of its playoff scoring chances against Columbus, the seventh-lowest among playoff teams.
Washington’s defense has improved since adding Michal Kempny
Since his arrival in Washington, Kempny has been skating with John Carlson, pushing rookie Christian Djoos to the third pair. The Capitals’ overall defense has improved significantly since then, allowing fewer even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes of play and, as a result, lower-quality shots against. According to the expected goal model found at the hockey analytics site Corsica.com, the expected goal rate both for and against improved after Kempny was added to the roster. The team’s actual goal differential also improved, boosting its expected win rate from 3.6 wins out of seven games before the trade to exactly four wins per seven games after his arrival. Coincidentally, four wins are enough to move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
|Per 60 minutes at even strength|
|2017-18 Capitals||Scoring chances||High-danger chances||Goals for||Goals against||Expected goals for||Expected goals against|
Carlson and Kempny aren’t the only defensive pair pushing Washington to the next level, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were critical in shutting down the Columbus Blue Jackets’ top line of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson in the first-round series. Those three were held to just two even-strength goals in addition to a 11 to 22 deficit in high-danger chances over 78 minutes.
Unlike Columbus, Pittsburgh can spread out Malkin and Phil Kessel on multiple lines, further taxing the Capitals defense. However, the Malkin, Kessel and Carl Hagelin line broke even with Philadelphia at even strength in terms of scoring chances (12 each) and scored just one goal in the series. Conor Sheary, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust were almost even in scoring chances (22 to 23) yet were outscored 1 to 2. Keeping the Crosby line in check will be priority No. 1. And if they Capitals can do that, their chances will significantly improve.
“I can’t wait,” Ovechkin said. “We believe in each other. No matter what happens, we have to stick to the plan, stick to the system. If we play the right way, we’ll find success.”
After accounting for home-ice advantage, Washington is still the underdog in this series with only a 45 percent chance to move on. But if its defense continues to play well and the Capitals get even the slightest benefit of puck luck, we could see Ovechkin playing in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in his career.