In every measure but the final score, the Washington Capitals were the lesser team in Thursday night’s opening game of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. They were outshot and dominated in even-strength scoring chances, and if the expected-goals metric had proved accurate, the Capitals would have finished with one tally instead of four.
But they were the team that left the Capital One Arena ice celebrating, deemed as lucky by most analytics but also quite good in their 4-2 win over the Hurricanes in Game 1.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really been worried about how many shots we get on net,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. “If we’re working the puck around and we have a couple bread-and-butter plays that have proven to work, we’re really not interested in the number as much as how we’re moving it and where the shots are coming from.”
This first-round series won’t get the attention as some others around the NHL — the scrappy newcomers enjoying their first postseason berth in a decade against the defending Stanley Cup champions. But perhaps more intriguing is the contrast in the teams’ offensive philosophies and what it reveals about shot metrics. The combination of shot-attempt location, quantity and other variables is often used as a way to gauge a team’s puck possession and offensive ability. In recent years especially, that measure has reflected poorly on the Capitals, who delight in overperforming vs. the underlying metrics. Washington’s expected even-strength goal output, as determined by Natural Stat Trick, was 173 this season, but the team finished with 220.
Enter the Hurricanes, the ultimate analytics darlings who boasted the most shots on goal per game, the most unblocked shot attempts per game, the most expected goals for and most high-danger scoring chances during the regular season, according to Natural Stat Trick. With those counts, Carolina should be the best offensive team in the league, yet it ranked 15th in the NHL with 191 even-strength goals while Washington had 29 more with roughly 300 fewer shots this season. What gives?
“I don’t want to give away our secrets here, but we have confidence in our game and we have confidence in our style,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “We’ve seen what it takes to have success, and we don’t want to stray away from that. I think we could’ve done a little bit better managing the game, but at the end of the day, we scored enough goals to win the game.”
Selective shooting has worked for Washington. The Capitals ranked 22nd in even-strength shots on goal this season, and that was an improvement after they finished last in that category a year ago. But over the two seasons combined, Washington has a league-best 10.4 shooting percentage, reflective of the team’s skill and ability to finish. An inflated shooting percentage is often discounted as unsustainable, or “puck luck,” but the Capitals have so consistently overachieved their expected-goals numbers that it’s become the norm for them. The opposite can be said for the Hurricanes, who steadily underperform in that category.
While shot metrics can account for the degree of danger based on location — the closer to the net, the better — they don’t factor in the variations in an individual player’s ability. Essentially, a one-timer from Alex Ovechkin from the left faceoff circle counts the same as a one-timer from Brooks Orpik in the left faceoff circle, but practically, one is much more likely to score than the other. In the context of this series, the Capitals have more skill throughout their lineup than the Hurricanes, and while that doesn’t necessarily decide playoff series, it matters when debating the analytical disparities between the two.
Considering the shot volume Carolina tends to generate, holding the Hurricanes to 29 for the game is a victory in itself. The Capitals managed just 18 pucks on net, and at even-strength, Natural Stat Trick tallied 12 scoring chances for Washington compared with 22 for Carolina. The Capitals took nearly 10 minutes to record their first shot of the game, then they scored on the second one and ended up with three goals on their first eight shots. The aim of most high shot-volume teams is to create chaos in front of the net with rebounds and second-chance opportunities, and while Washington wished it had done more of that in Carolina’s end on Thursday, the Capitals expertly limited the Hurricanes’ offense in front of goaltender Braden Holtby.
“I think if you talk to Holts and other goalies, if guys are going to throw pucks at them from all over the ice, they may have 35 or 40 shots, but if he’s seeing all of them and he’s making saves, he’s probably feeling pretty good about himself,” center Nic Dowd said. “There’s definitely a differential in quality vs. quantity, and I think we’re definitely on the quality side.”
The Capitals felt their five-on-five play was lacking Thursday night, especially the amount of offensive-zone time they logged, but they were still credited with more shots from the slot and more rush scoring chances. Based on how Natural Stat Trick judges high-danger scoring chances, the Hurricanes had a slight edge there.
“I think we did a good job in some instances of keeping the shot quality low,” Carlson said. “But we didn’t execute well enough to break it out and get the puck out of the zone. They’d have a couple meaningless plays, and we fumble with it, and we’re tired, and then they’re starting to get good looks. . . . If we’re going to make plays and be able to execute plays behind them, then we’re going to get odd-man rushes all night.”
It’s a lot like what the Pittsburgh Penguins did to the Capitals two years ago, the second-round series that seemed to shift the organization’s mind-set away from volume and toward quality — and what kind of quality leads to goals. Washington clearly had the puck more that series and significantly outshot Pittsburgh, but the Penguins capitalized on their counterattack. Earlier this season, then-Florida Panthers Coach Bob Boughner observed that Washington was the league’s top team at generating offense off the rush, and that stems from a focus on creating lateral plays, which have the best chance of going in because of the degree of difficulty for the opposing goaltender. The Capitals excelled in that regard Thursday night, even if the shot ticker otherwise favored the Hurricanes.
“We were able to generate some high quality against them, particularly when it came to executing some play versus their pressure,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “A few times, we were able to execute and get some opportunities, but I’d like to see us get to the offensive zone more and force them to defend a little longer. Some of our offense came off chances that were generated rush-wise, more so than forecheck opportunities that turned into long, extended offensive zone shifts, which is where you can really force some of their really offensive defensemen to be not so active in the rush. So that’s an area that we’ll be looking at and making some adjustments to so we can be better in Game 2.”
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