[Ed. note: this is the second article in our series about the Capitals' struggles leading up to the trade deadline. The first Capitals During Wartime post addressed the team's problems with the center position.]
At the end of All-Star Break, the Washington Capitals sit in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference and 1st in the Southeast Division, but their prospects for the postseason are not secure. The Southeast has two challengers– the Florida Panthers (with whom the Caps are virtually tied) and the Winnipeg Jets. Plus, the Capitals have a tough schedule down the stretch– including some tough games on the road. When Neil Greenberg at the Washington Post looked at the Caps’ remaining schedule, he was not encouraged.
That’s because the road is where the Capitals have had most of their troubles this season. The team’s home record of 18-6-1 is fourth best in the league, but away they are just 8-13-2, a dismal 25th. One spectacularly bad road game in Buffalo on November 26th probably cost Coach Boudreau his job. The power play and penalty kill perform vastly better in Verizon Center than they do when away. With 18 away games remaining, the Capitals will have to do better on the road if they want to make the playoffs.
The article looks at the Caps’ troubles away from D.C. from several angles: possession, shooting, special teams, and Alex Ovechkin. And because it’s interesting, I’m comparing Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter too. Uh oh.
The Capitals are in deep trouble when it comes to generating offense. They are currently 28th in cumulative shots on goal and will likely become sole occupants of the league’s basement within a month. But surprisingly, the shooting malaise isn’t a problem of the road versus home.
The Capitals average 26.4 shots at home and 28.2 away. Both totals are measly. And it only tells half the story.
I counted even-strength shots both for and against, both home and away, under Hunter and under Boudreau.
The unfortunate conclusion here is that the Capitals can’t keep pace with their opponents– wherever they play. Specifically, during Dale Hunter’s time the Capitals have seen their hometown advantage on offense vanish.
It’s worth mentioning that the Capitals win over 70% of games when they outshoot their opponents (2nd best in the league), but only 45% when they’re outshot (17th in the league). If they win 45% of their remaining games, they will not make the playoffs.
At even strength, the Capitals have outshot just one team at home since Dale Hunter took over. It was the Calgary Flames. On the road, they have fared slightly better– just not recently. Right after Hunter came to town, the Caps outshot the Panthers, the Senators, the Jets, the Avalanche, and the Devils. But none of those teams are offensive powerhouses, and the Caps have been dominated ever since.
But at least it’s not a road-home thing.
Okay, okay. Not everyone is on board with advanced stats. But while a team’s overall record does a good job of telling you their outcomes so far, Fenwick is better at predicting their future.
Fenwick is the total of a team’s even-strength shots, goals, misses– subtracted by the opposing team’s total. I’ll tell you right now that the team is minus-87 overall, and that ain’t good.
The team isn’t keeping pace with their opponents either at home or away. Yeah, it’s worse on the road, but what’s more noticeable is how the team’s possession has declined under Coach Hunter. Boudreau left the Capitals in the black — although much of that success was earned during the 7-game winning streak that opened the season. Since Hunter took over, possession at home has been obliterated.
These Fenwick scores disregard the game’s score. To be fair, the Caps are a bit stronger when the score is close (16th), but their dramatic drop-offs in possession when ahead or behind by at least two points exceeds other teams in the league (29th and 27th, respectively).
The Capitals power play is ranked 13th overall with an 18.5% conversion rate. That middle-of-the-pack stat is hiding the truth of the matter, because this team is night-and-day depending on where they play.
The Capitals have a terrific power play in Chinatown, hitting the net almost a quarter of the time. But once they leave those friendly confines, the man-advantage falls off a cliff.
The good news is that the power play has gotten better in both circumstances under Coach Hunter. Not good enough, clearly, but progress is being made.
Same story. The Capitals are ranked 23rd with a dreary kill rate of 80.8% overall. But that’s an average of two disparate PK units.
The Caps are in the bottom five of special teams while on the road. Their home penalty kill is sterling — and has improved under Hunter, but they’re dragged down by a road unit that fails about once every four tries. There is no way to sugarcoat how bad the Caps are on the road when a man down, but maybe they could mitigate the problem by committing fewer penalties while away; they’re currently 16th in that stat.
And here’s the most curious thing. Alex Ovechkin, who by most accounts is in decline, seems to be slumping at home most of all. Just 6 of his 20 goals have come at Verizon Center.
Here are Alex’s average goals per game, shots per game, and shooting percentage.
|Home||0.24 G/g||3.24 S/g||7.40%|
|Bruce Boudreau||0.09 G/g||3.09 S/g||2.94%|
|Dale Hunter||0.36 G/g||3.36 S/g||10.6%|
|Away||0.61 G/g||3.91 S/g||15.6%|
|Bruce Boudreau||0.61 G/g||4.09 S/g||15.6%|
|Dale Hunter||0.61 G/g||3.75 S/g||15.6%|
Ovechkin is shooting 7.4% at home. A good deal of that is due to his scoring only one goal on 34 shots over 11 games under Boudreau. But even under Hunter, Ovechkin’s 10.6% is under his career average. It’s worth mentioning that Ovechkin has 9 more assists at home than he does on the road. Still, there is room for growth.
On the road, Ovechkin is playing more like his old self. He’s firing more shots (although not nearly enough for a former league leader), and he’s getting luckier with them. His 15.6% road shooting percentage isn’t Stamkos-ian, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Ovechkin has got to shoot more in both circumstances. Even if Ovi were to shoot his road average of 3.91 times per game, he’d still finish the season with the lowest shot total of his career. We really need him firing 5 or more on the net every single game.
And like the honey badger before him, Alex Ovechkin does not give a hoot about who his coach is. His scoring drought at home snapped under Hunter, but his road performance has been identical. If Boudreau was fired because he “lost” Alex Ovechkin, Hunter hasn’t effected a change in the captain.
The Capitals need to shoot more. Doesn’t matter if they’re at home or away, they just need to fire more pucks at the net. They’re in immediate danger of becoming the most harmless team in the NHL. At home under Coach Hunter, the team has lost its offensive passion. The road is hardly better, and the nadir was reached on January 18th when the Caps fired just 10 even-strength shots in Montreal. That they somehow won that game is heartwarming, dumbfounding, and seductive. No team can sustain success without more offense.
The home power-play unit is elite, but the away power-play unit is awful. The penalty kill is the same, but there have been improvements under Dale Hunter. In the tight games that the new coach says he is keen to play, these goals will often be the margin of victory or defeat. And if the Caps can’t get their road PK unit crackling, they need to commit fewer penalties. We’re looking at you, Bad Sasha.
Beyond the road-versus-home stuff, there is a compelling but uncomfortable conclusion we have to reach: the Washington Capitals have gotten worse under Dale Hunter. His modest improvements on special teams have been offset by deflated by even-strength performance. This team stunned the NHL two years ago with the best offense since Detroit in ’06, but now they’re headed for dead last in shots on goal. If firing Boudreau was supposed to turn this team around quickly, it failed. If it is supposed to improve the team in the long term, the trend lines are heading in the wrong direction.
When we previewed the Caps schedule, we told you to put a big circle around the ides of March. There are three road games in four nights– and they’re against Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia– three of the league’s best teams. Those three games will come after the trade deadline, which is George McPhee‘s last chance to make a course correction for a wayward season. If the Caps can prove themselves in those games, we’ll know that this team is still capable of great things.
In the meantime, we need to figure out why it is that a talented team can have such trouble away from their home arena. Is it the off-ice amenities– like a short commute and mama’s home-cooking– that make the difference? Could it be that the Caps are more acclimated to the notoriously harsh and groin-sundering ice conditions at Verizon Center? Is it the customary unleashing of fury that makes the Caps turn up the heat or maybe the 5 or 6 times they play Pantera’s “Walk” over the PA every single game? Is it The Horn Guy? Is it Goat? Is it Wes?
I have no earthly idea, but I’d like to hear your opinion.
Why do the Caps struggle on the road? How can they fix it?
I would have liked to embed this Tenacious D video here, but there are like 20 billion naughty words in it. So with my stern NSFW warning, feel free to check it out. All data from NHL and Behind the Net. If you’d like to see my compiled dataset, let me know. And finally, this: