The Washington Capitals’ magical run in the playoffs started with overcoming a 2-0 deficit to the Columbus Blue Jackets, carried on through the second round with a convincing victory over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and continues in the Eastern Conference finals, where they hold a 2-0 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, with Game 3 at Capital One Arena on Tuesday night.
I’ll admit the numbers didn’t see this coming, going as far to say Washington looked more like a non-playoff team than a Cup contender, yet the Capitals aren’t playing the way they did during the regular season, either. Plus, for the first time, puck luck is going their way.
During the regular season, Washington took less than half of the shot attempts and scoring chances at even strength (48 percent), placing it 24th and 26th in the NHL, respectively. When you factored in shot quality, or lack thereof, its actual even-strength goal differential of plus-16 drops to minus-20, the eighth-worst expected differential in 2017-18. The Capitals’ share of even-strength shot attempts is at the break-even point in the postseason — 50 percent for shot attempts and 51 percent for scoring chances — but more importantly, they are capitalizing on those opportunities while limiting opponents from doing the same.
Washington is converting on almost 9 percent of its shots on net during this playoff run, its best rate since 2009. The Capitals are also converting 11 percent of their high-danger chances — those in the slot and the crease — a playoff high since 2012.
Goaltending has also played a role in Washington’s postseason run. Braden Holtby has stopped 340 of the 367 shots he has faced in the playoffs, and that includes preventing 106 of 113 high-danger chances at even strength (a .938 save percentage) from hitting their mark. Against the Lightning, Holtby is 15 for 17 against high-danger chances during even strength and 3 for 4 on the penalty kill.
The Capitals have enjoyed good goaltending before — the team’s .936 save rate at even strength is the fourth-highest since 2008 — but it is rare for Washington to see success at both ends of the ice. Their 102.5 PDO, a proxy for puck luck that adds a team’s shooting and save rate at even strength, is the highest it has been over the past decade and the 11th highest for a playoff team over the past 10 years. And only the Vegas Golden Knights are seeing more puck luck (103.8 PDO) in 2018.
“In past years, we might feel a different way,” defenseman John Carlson told The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga. “Maybe [we] had a different aura in the room. This year is just different.”
Look for the final outcome to be different, too. Since the conference finals began in 1975, only two teams out of 41 have come back from an 0-2 deficit in this round: the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 1984 New York Islanders. And the the Capitals now have a 32 percent chance to be the 2018 Stanley Cup champions.
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