Caps vs. Pens: The Fix Is In?


Complaining about officiating is an unmistakable sign of a poor sport. Only a terrible sportsman blames the referees, but let’s get real: the Caps are getting screwed on penalties against the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’m not here to spread conspiracy theories or accuse officials of malpractice; I’ve just got some cold, hard facts that may blow your mind.

Our friend Addison Huber did some number crunching on our behalf and turned up some exciting finds.

Recently, Caps PR maven Nate Ewell tweeted some interesting statistics regarding the discrepancy between penalties for and against the Capitals in games against the Penguins. Nate’s count came to 73 penalties against the Caps versus 43 against the Penguins in the last 14 games the two teams have played against each other. This information made me wonder just how unusual these numbers were compared to some sort of “average” data set.

In order to come up with an average to compare the Caps-Pens series against, I compiled two different sets of data. The first comparison was the Caps against several other teams in 14 game sets. In order to keep the time period the same as the Caps-Pens set, I limited the team selection to Eastern Conference teams, since they play with much more frequency. All the Eastern Conference teams (less Pittsburgh and Washington) were arranged in alphabetical order and numbered. I then used to select three of those teams, which ended up being New Jersey, New York Rangers, and Tampa Bay. Penalty statistics for the last 14 games against each of those teams were taken from Penalties for each team in each series were summed, then averaged to give an average for-and-against number, percent of penalties called, and average penalties called per game. That action yielded the following results: in a 14 game series against a random team, the Capitals would be expected to be called for 67 penalties, while their opponent would be called for 73 (48% and 52% of total penalties, respectively). Penalties-per-game were be 4.81 for the Caps and and 5.19 for their opponents. On average, there were 140 total penalties called in the series.

To provide another data point I again used to select 14 games from the last 240 games played (the same period as the last 14 games against Pittsburgh) and looked at the penalty data for that random “series.” Game 1 was the first game of the 2007-8 season and game 240 was the most recent game against Calgary. The random 14 game series showed that the Caps should be expected to be whistled for 72 penalties, while their opponents would be whistled for 63 (53% and 47% of total penalties, respectively). Penalties-per-game would be 5.14 for the Caps and 4.5 for their opponents. On average, there were 135 total penalties called in the series. With a variance of about only 5% between the two data sets, I would say these numbers are a pretty accurate representation of the Caps’ propensity to be called for and draw penalties.


Comparing these penalty numbers to the penalty numbers from the Penguins “series” that Nate referenced led to some interesting results. At first glace at Nate’s Tweet, I would have guessed that the Caps were being called for penalties at a higher rate than normal. However, in a 14 game series, we would expect the Capitals to be called for 70 penalties, whereas in the Pens series they were called for 73, only a 5% increase and well within standard deviation. Looking at the penalties called on the Penguins, however, yields a much more unexpected result. While we expect the Pens to also be called for about 70 penalties, they were only called for 43, a 37% decrease, way outside a reasonable margin of error. To find the probability of this few penalties being called against the Penguins I plugged the numbers into the Poisson distribution. [Ed. note – see Appendix A below for more information regarding Poisson.] According to that function, the probability of the Pens being called for only 43 penalties is .01437%. Not that I am a frequent wearer of aluminum millinery, but it is clear that, for whatever reason, the referees are putting away their whistles against the Penguins when they play the Caps but continuing to call the Caps for penalties at the same rate. Alternatively, it could be argued that the Penguins, for some reason, play much more disciplined hockey against the Capitals. No matter what the explanation, it is obvious that the Caps should always practice their penalty kill before they play the Penguins.

For everyone who blacked out when the numbers came, the proliferations of Caps’ penalties against the Pens stretches credulity.  We could spend hours guessing why the Penguins receive preferential treatment while the Capitals get the lash, or we could cast aspersions against the zebras, or we could claim the the game is fixed.  But we will do none of that.

The Capitals will win or lose on their merit.  Nothing else.  The officials are imbued with the trust of the game, and if that trust is abused, so be it.  It is beyond our ability to fix.  Until the last horn blows, it is up to the team — and no other–  to determine its own fate.

We leave you now with further ruminations on the Poisson distribution, as expounded by noted philologians Richard Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronald DeVoe.

  • Abhi

    Shouldn’t you compare the number of Penguins penalties with those of random opponents like you did with the Caps? If they have a normal average number of penalties for those games, then it would prove that they are getting preferential treatment, rather than just playing very clean hockey.

  • Possibly the most brilliant blog posting ever to weave statistics together with the musical stylings of Bell Biv Devoe.

    I doff my hat to you.

  • @Abhi – I could do that. For a shortcut, I checked the penalty stats at PIT is 22nd in the NHL, averaging about 5.3 P/G or 14 PIM/G. 5.3 P/G gives an expected penalty number of 74 in a 14 game set.

    (In comparison WSH is 9th, averaging 4.6 P/G)

  • thomas

    unless they receive preferential treatment in those games which would skew the sample size and projection of penalties

  • breaklance

    Kind of an obvious counter point which doesn’t have a whole lot of proof but pundits would say “Well the Caps and Pens are rivals and play really hard against each other and are more likely to get carried away and take a penalty”

  • Steve in Arlington

    I got to “averaged to get an average” and then my brain imploded. This whole exercise is bad karma. Harumph.

  • BobbyG

    We’ll get another chance tonight to see if the statistical pattern holds up.

  • Tim

    OUCH! My head hurts. . .but from what I remember of this post, looks like good info

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  • IRockTheRed

    @Addison – I’d like to see those stats, just to be fair in the comparison, but I’ve been saying since the playoffs last year when I was WATCHING the Pens commit fouls and not be called for them that something was rotten in the state of Denmark, and I’m glad to see that the statistics back me up on this. Not saying it’s deliberate on the part of the referees or anything like that, but I’m damned glad McCreary is retiring … or is he?!

  • Easy

    McCreary is not retiring until after next year.

    On the penalty analysis, Caps rank at the 93rd percentile on obstruction infractions and the 17th on safety. Pittsburgh is 58th on obstruction and 89th on safety. That should result in a mild imbalance but nothing as much as is revealed by your initial numbers. Safety and obstruction are the two categories that generally end up in PPs.

    Overall, Washington ranks at the 34th percentile on taking penalties and Pittsburgh at 82nd. The high ranking on Pitt is taking control calls such as roughs and misconducts which are generally matched. My breakdown does not include fights with control.

    Hope this information helps. It is culled from this year’s penalties to date (3/31/10).

  • Good breakdown. And for the record, there were two pretty obvious no-calls in Pittsburgh’s favor last night. One of them led to a Penguin Scum goal.

    And don’t forget the “no hitter” the Penguin Scum pitched in Game 7 last year.

    Though I will dispute one thing, when one team knows that it can do whatever they want and get away with it while their opponent knows that they are being held to a higher standard, it will effect the way both teams play the game.

    Finally, as I was reading Tim Donaghy’s book, I had to chuckle as he reported some of the more disputed NBA moments and confirmed the “suspicions” of many commentators who said some of the calls were highly suspect but then went onto say that there was no way there was any kind of “fixing” taking place. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

  • IRockTheRed

    @Addison – I’d specifically like to see the stats from the Pens-Red Wings SCF series over the last two seasons. I looked it up… would like your conclusions based on this.

    Game 7 (06/12/09) – Penguins: 3 minor penalties, Red Wings: 2 minor penalties
    Game 6 (06/09/09) – Penguins: 2 minor penalties, Red Wings: 2 minor penalties
    Game 5 (06/06/09) – Penguins: 9 minor penalties, Red Wings: 2 minor penalties
    Game 4 (06/04/09) – Penguins: 5 minor penalties, Red Wings: 4 minor penalties
    Game 3 (06/02/09) – Penguins: 2 minor penalties, Red Wings: 3 minor penalties
    Game 2 (05/31/09) – Penguins: 3 minor penalties, Red Wings: 1 minor penalty (this was also the instigator on Malkin in the last 5 minutes of the game that didn’t result in a suspension).
    Game 1 (05/30/09) – Penguins: 1 minor penalty, Red Wings: 2 minor penalties


    Penguins: 20 minor penalties / 7 games = 2.857 minors/game
    Red Wings: 16 minor penalties / 7 games = 2.285 minors/game

    Regular Season:

    Penguins: 397 minor penalties / 82 games = 4.841 minors/game (20th in league)
    Red Wings: 361 minor penalties / 82 games = 4.402 minors/game (11th in league)

    Result: Both teams appeared to play a more-disciplined game than in the regular season (Malkin’s badboy nature in game 2 notwithstanding).


    Game 6 (06/04/08) – Penguins: 4 minor penalties, Red Wings: 6 minor penalties
    Game 5 (06/02/08) – Penguins: 6 minor penalties, Red Wings: 6 minor penalties
    Game 4 (05/31/08) – Penguins: 5 minor penalties, Red Wings: 8 minor penalties
    Game 3 (05/28/08) – Penguins: 5 minor penalties, Red Wings: 3 minor penalties
    Game 2 (05/26/08) – Penguins: 12 minor penalties, Red Wings: 8 minor penalties
    Game 1 (05/24/08) – Penguins: 6 minor penalties, Red Wings: 5 minor penalties


    Penguins: 38 minor penalties / 6 games = 6.33 minors/game
    Red Wings: 36 minor penalties / 6 games = 6 minors/game

    Regular Season:

    Penguins: 384 minor penalties / 82 games = 4.682 minors/game (13th in league)
    Red Wings: 402 minor penalties / 82 games = 4.902 minors/game (20th in league)

    Result: Both teams appeared to play a less-disciplined game than in the regular season.

  • GJ

    Great piece of work. Pity that none of the media will even consider addressing this issue– they don’t even need to go into any reasons, but the huge numerical disparity is pretty intriguing, and I would imagine, unlikely to exist between other teams– although it might be interesting to see if there are any other teams that have similar disparities, just out of curiosity (and further conspiracy fodder).

  • Covariance

    Just remember, when it comes to Crosby vs. Ovechkin, the refs are canadian.

  • joe q

    thanks for mathematically proving what is obvious if you just watch any games involving the penguins.. as a flyers fan, we are always pointing this out, but then since the flyers aren’t as good as the caps, we fall behind due to the biased reffing and then the refs will call penalties on the pens after the game is out of reach to even out the total number.. against the caps i guess the refs don’t have that luxury of making themselves look less biased

  • rico

    why? because washington can’t/won’t play defense either mano-a-mano or by team and as a result they have to resort to holding, slashing, grabbing, tripping, etc. when they get caught out of position. simple as that.

    it’s the same against whoever they play, the penguins just have enough talented forwards that they can expose the capitals regularly. if washington draws new jersey, pittsburgh, detroit, san jose, chicago – hell, even phoenix, colorado & los angeles in the playoffs then the capitals will lose.

    you can’t win every playoff hockey game by a final score of 8-5.

  • Peter


  • Same_old_chokers

    I listen to this BS and it is the same old crapital fans. The only number you guys need to know is 7-1. For those of you who aren’t too bright it is the playoff record between the craps and pens. That includes 2 2-0 and 2 3-1 series leads that you couldn’t hold. You people just need to stfu until the capitals win in the post season. You were 3-0-1 last season and look what happened. Blame the refs, blame whomever you like but you are and always will be chokers until your princess (#8) can prove us wrong.

  • conspiracy idiots

    Penguins > Caps > Flyers

    Keep crying D.C. & Philly, that only makes it so much sweeter when your players have to come shake our players hands.

    knocking both of you out of the playoffs last year was so sweet.

  • Ziggyny

    I noticed this all last year in the playoffs. The Penguins were consistently able to run interference that every other team in the playoffs were getting penalties for, to no effect. Hal Gill has been a gigantic useless pylon his entire career until the playoffs last year where he suddenly became a top defenseman?

  • Great read. As a fan of neither team, I long suspected Pittsburgh received preferable officiating against Washington (and against the rest of the league, for that matter… they were assisted in a major way in each series of their Cup run last year).

    The responses from all Penguins fans are predictable (the “quit whining” contingent) but facts are facts.

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  • SM


    Exactly…. look at the Cup Finals last year. The Pens had 6 skaters on the ice for almost half a minute, and not only was there not a penalty called, but it sure appeared that the offical tipped Eaton off that he needed to leave the ice.

  • Gakke

    It’s pretty simple if you aren’t stupid. The Pens don’t take a lot of penalties because they play fast and physical and don’t have to hook and hold guys to get position. It’s all about Bylsma’s style and having 3 fast, 2 way centers and a fast d-corp. The Caps are a bunch of lazy cherrypicking bums and Russians who don’t skate and have to take penalties to play defense.

  • @MoniMaz

    This just proves that no one can hang with your stuff.

  • @MoniMaz

    (meaning, Russianmachine) To the Mr. Crankypants PensFan above, I re-direct you to Caps v Pens game on 3-6-2010. 6-3. Deal with it.

  • Dear Russian Machine,

    First of all, great work on the stats.

    At CapsBlog we were planning on a similar piece as this one a couple of days back. We waited until after last night’s game to post it, which was after yours was already posted (unbeknown to us).

    A couple of people have called, us at CapsBlog, copy-cats, which is anything but the truth.

    First of all, we included the past 15 games, while this post only has the past 14 games. Second, there are a number of other things in our post not found here. Third, this blog post takes the reader through a few statistical manipulations, all of which I consider to be highly questionable, at best. I just wanted to present the facts without trying to draw any conclusions about the precise likelihood that these stats could have resulted from mere chance, since anyone can see that mere chance is not a plausible explanation. It is much, much more likely the result of the (also) implausible explanation that the Penguins are much cleaner than normal when they play the Capitals and the Capitals are much dirtier than normal when they play the Penguins, and, like I said, that explanation is itself pretty implausible, although certainly possible.

    That should clear the CapsBlog name for all of those out there calling us copycats.

  • Peter Hassett


    Thanks for writing.

    I don’t think you’re a copycat, and I’m not aware of anyone who did. If someone did, that person is wrong and also dead to me.

    This @peterhassett jackass over on twitter just wanted to share a common practice– linking to another article that covers the same topic. Some call it a “hat tip.” No ill will was meant by it, but I/he did want to use the chance to thank Addison for his hard work.

    As for the contents of the articles themselves, I don’t understand a gosh darn word of either one.

    Hope we’re cool. Call me sometime. You’re still my boo.


  • Cookie Monster

    Just a quick skim of the Pit vs Phi numbers over the past two seasons (non-playoff games) show that those numbers aren’t skewed like the Was vs Pit penalty numbers.

    More numbers that might make you go, Hmmmm.

  • CapsBlog your first paragraph flaming us (which you have since taken down wussily) really made my night. Really? You never read us? Then who’s that guy leaving comments and signing his name as “CapsBlog?” Must be an imposter!

    All I’m gonna say is, Think before you write man. We have no problems with whatever you want to dish about. For real. Just try to have some fun. This isn’t a competition.

    – Ian

  • TO the Penguin Scum fans.

    Explain the 21 seconds.

  • James

    I’d like to see a review of all penalties drawn by Semin to see how many were embellished and/or dives. Then I’d like to see how many times #8 was whistled for charging/boarding/roughing/kneeing/game misconduct versus how many times he SHOULD have been called. I’d say he’s called 35% of the time and given leeway on his reckless, excess, late, leaving his feet hits 65% of the time.

    Maybe the Caps just commit more penalties due to the Pens style of play. Maybe the Caps just go out of their way to be aggressive against Crosby and Malkin and pay the price for it.

  • Easy

    Maybe some of you would want to peruse the above post. It was written by a Stars fan evaluating the refs. Part of a project where all but 3 (first round) of last year’s playoff games were covered specifically reviewing the refs by fans who were team neutral for each game.

    We are in favor of quality officiating. Period.

  • BorikDiner

    Well, 15 consecutive games Pens got huge power play advantage agains Caps, if this is not conspiracy what it is.

    NHL doesn’t want Caps to win Stanley cup. So far they think, that Pittsburgh is the team who can stop Caps. This why if Caps and Pens will meet again, Pens will have huge power play advantage. This how they won in the last year play off. It is what it is, you can’t change it. Caps need to play much much better to win in the play off series against Pittsburg.

    More statistics:
    Pittsburgh power play opportunities about 3.89 per game for this season.
    With Washington are 4.75 per game
    Pittsburgh short handed about 3.89 per game.
    With Washington are 2

    Washington power play opportunities about 3.87 per game for this season.
    With Pittsburgh are 2 per game
    Washington short handed about 3.93 per game.
    With Pittsburgh are 4.75 per game 2
    I’m not trying to say that Caps are better (I hope they are). Only one thing I want is the same rules for all teams. Of cause if you have huge power play advantage it is much easier to win. If you put Caps short handed for half of the game, even minor league team can win.

    If in the play off Pittsburg again will have power play advantage (against any team), this will defiantly damage their image. Pittsburg is a good hockey team, they don’t need this help. They can compete with any team in the league, and win without power play advantage. If they will do so, I will applaud them myself, otherwise they should be very ashamed.

  • unbiased hockey lover

    Rule 74 Too Many men on the Ice
    taken from

    If in the course of making a substitution, either the player entering the game or the player (or goalkeeper) retiring from the ice surface plays the puck with his stick, skates or hands or who checks or makes any physical contact with an opposing player while either the player entering the game or the retiring player is actually on the ice, then the infraction of “too many men on the ice” will be called.

    Eaton never came near the play which was below the goal line for all 21 seconds. Maybe the ref had his attention focused on the play below the goal line instead of the blue line. refs like players also have to make split second decisions and many times they miss things. the game happens extremely fast and 21 seconds happens in the blink of an eye when youre on the ice and not at home with your DVR recording penalties to prove the conspiracy to help the penguins every year.

  • BorikDiner

    To – unbiased hockey lover

    Of cause refs are humans and they can make a mistake or miss some things.
    Asked yourself why during 15 consecutive games they missed a lot of Pens calls and punished Caps for anything what can possibly be punished.
    77 Pens power plays against 44 Caps.
    By the way Caps the best scoring team in the league.
    People just try not too believe or afraid to say about the conspiracy.

  • BorikDiner

    Thank you very much for the link where ‘Stars fan evaluating the refs’.
    Absolutely tremendous work!!!
    My advice to everybody who love the game of hockey (doesn’t matter which team you support) to read it.

    I feel very sorry, for Pittsburgh fans. Yes, I want Washington to win Stanley cup, but I don’t want them to win in the same way like Pittsburgh did last year.

  • Easy

    Thank you for the compliment.

    Here are a few more links:

    A table of regular season games reviewed for this season:

    The grades by category given to each ref for his reviews (through 1/7/10 at this point):

    The verbal interpretation of review results over 4 years:

    A brief statistical analysis of calls (there is much more in the data that is collected):
    ACPG is calls resulting in manpower advantages, CPG is all calls. Generally the differential between the two numbers is a pretty good definition of game control for each ref.

    The core thread which has review criteria at the top:

  • Ok, I will grant you that refs sometimes miss calls. But that’s pretty darn big thing to miss for that long.

    However, why wasn’t any action taken against the crew that badly botched the call?

    The exact same crew worked Game 5 of that series and half of them got to work Game 7.

    What other league would tolerate that kind of incompetence from its best officials on its biggest stage and just sweep it under the rug?

  • Sherry

    seems to be a lot of bickering going on somewhere in all those comments, i love your blog, its one of the best, i appreciate your humor matched with your awesome knowledge of all things russian and caps , keep up the good work!!!

  • Easy

    @caps nut
    O’Halloran was dropped from the rotation for later rounds. Previously, he had worked an SCF. IMO, Game 3 was a part of the issue. Leggo, his partner had never been out of the second round. Detroit also has a history with O’Halloran and their fans and players are none to fond of him. That was likely in addition to the Caps/Pens issue. Followers of the postings of our group would learn the history of some of the refs. We do try to serve as a collection point for info.

  • BorikDiner

    Thank again for all information you sent. I really appreciate your desire to change things that really damage our society. I hope the voice of people like you can change it, but the question is why the media never even discuss these things. Do we have free press, don’t we?

  • FlyersFan

    You guys sound like a bunch of Flyers fans. Nice to see we’re not the only ones thinking we’re getting the shaft from the zebras every time we play Pittsburgh. Though to be fair I think the Caps catch more than their fair share of breaks as well from the Zebras…just not near as much as the miserable Penguins.