Why the Washington Capitals Lost

Jared Wickerham

Photo credit: Jared Wickerham

Looking back over the last few years, I feel like I could articulate reasons for each year the Capitals got bounced from the playoffs. Last year’s Hunter Caps didn’t generate enough shots to win more than 50% of their games. Boudreau’s 2011 trap-Caps got beat by the Bolts’ suffocating two-man forecheck. The 2010 Caps were a solid team that ran into a white-hot goalie, i.e. they got Halak’d. And in ’09, an injured but explosive Caps crew couldn’t withstand the Cup-bound Penguins.

This year is a bit tougher. Certainly New York’s excellent goaltending deserves a bunch of credit for vanquishing the Capitals, but I’m hard-pressed to characterize this iteration of the team and how they fell short. I think that’s due to the abbreviated season, one bereft of a real training camp for rookie coach Adam Oates to implement his system. And that system itself is harder to peg down– I suppose it relies on a quick transition game (but not as wide-open as the 08-09 version) and using an overload defense (but nothing we’d describe as a trap, thank goodness).

So my goal is to find out — objectively– who these 2013 Caps were and how they got beat by the Rangers. (Plus: kitten GIFs.)

A note: I know this is coming a full two weeks after most everyone has moved on. If you find this article to be redundant, I totally understand if you skip it. I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to make RMNB readers laugh, but I think I’m finally ready to face the cold hard facts now.

Possession

1Let’s start with the basics. Possession (or “tilting the ice”) is what we call the percentage of shots each team attempts at even strength. That shot-attempt rate is the best predictor we have of a future team’s success, but it is by no means a crystal ball (cf. Halak’d).

The regular-season Caps were 22nd in the league at tilting the ice (excluding blocked shots and score effects) with 47.72%. The New York Rangers were 7th in the league with 53.88%. In a world free of statistical variance, that differential would spell doom for the Caps, so let’s check that out first.

(Quick rejoinder: Lots of readers have hypothesized that the Caps’ possession might have improved over the regular season, but that didn’t turn out to be true– they actually got slightly worse since those opening weeks.)

When the score was close (and it was close for pretty much the whole series), the Capitals actually tilted the ice against the Rangers 52.8%. That’s a reversal of where these teams were the in regular season. The Capitals were the more aggressive team– more than the Rangers, and more than themselves during the regular season. Very encouraging, though we already know how it turned out.

Those numbers exclude blocked shots, but I should note that, true to form, the Rangers out-blocked the Capitals 161 to 130. We can (and should) debate the usefulness of shot-blocking (hey wait, we already did!), but here’s something that jumped out at me: the Capitals averaged 19 blocks a game, but mustered less than half that (9) in game seven. I really, really, really doubt that shot-blocking is why the Caps lost, but it might be an indicator of a team that at some point during that game had accepted defeat with a three-goal deficit and twenty minutes remaining (Apparently the Bruins did not feel the same).

It’s always good to revisit Chris Boyle’s revelatory visualization of how possession determines postseason success. Teams with low possession rarely perform well in the playoffs, but in this series the Capitals tilted the ice and still lost. Our search continues…

Goaltending and Shooting

2I should start by saying both of these goalies were excellent. Braden Holtby served up a 92.2% save percentage during the playoffs (ever so slightly better than his regular season 92.0%, and very much tainted by the game seven meltdown). He put up four quality starts, three of which the Capitals converted into a win, and seemingly bettered his 2012 performance up until everything went awful in game seven. Holtby was certainly good enough to give the Caps a chance to win.

But.

Henrik Lundqvist had a 93.7% save percentage, including shutouts in both elimination games — flawless against 62 shots. Before games six and seven, Lundqvist was hovering around a Fleury-ian 90.7%. When it mattered most, he became unstoppable. When the Rangers were a man down (more on that below), Lundqvist was similarly awesome– 93.1%. And when playing at evens, Lundqvist was lights-out– 95.5% save percentage.

Clutch.

There’s this stat called PDO (the acronym is meaningless) that is used to observe how statistical variance can make good teams look bad and bad teams look good over short stretches. It adds up your team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, hoping the result is somewhere near 1000– teams significantly above or below eventually come crashing down. The Capitals were exactly 1000 until game 7, when scoring dried up and Holtby allowed five even-strength goals.

The Capitals finished with a PDO of 957. Yikes.

Henrik Lundqvist halak’d the Caps, although I suppose somebody could also say the Caps just shot poorly, selecting shots that were easy to save and not creating dangerous scoring chances. Whom we choose to blame or credit may say more about ourselves than it does about a hockey player.

Penalties and Special Teams

3To Caps fans, the officiating in the 2013 playoffs will be upsetting for years to come. The Capitals went shorthanded 28 times in 7 games. They spent 45:48 with at least one man down, more than 11% of the series.

On the other hand, the Capitals got 18 power play opportunities, including none in game six, a 1-0 New York victory in which neither team had a decisive possession advantage.

That disparity isn’t unprecedented. Vancouver served even less time on power play, and Montreal spent longer on the kill per game. But it is a bit surprising that the Capitals committed so many more penalties despite having the puck more often. Most commonly called penalties (holding, slashing, hooking) are committed by the team without the puck, and the weakest possession teams tend to cluster up near the top of the “times shorthanded” stat. The Capitals had a decisive possession advantage in this series and still got locked up as if they got caught in Detroit with a dimebag.

4This raises the specter of officiating bias and his drunk uncle, conspiracy theory. I have no patience for the latter (why would the NHL want Alex Ovechkin out of the playoffs early?), but we definitely saw some bad calls in the series, most of them against the Caps. I don’t think it was a well officiated series, but I can’t think of anything useful to do with that opinion. It’s not like there’s some forum for aggrieved fans to appeal to the league for a redo, and being grumpy all summer is a wearying thought. What do we do with outrage? Put it aside and move on, I guess.

Until game seven’s 5-goal mollywhomping, the Capitals led the Rangers in goals 12 to 11. I mention that because special-teams scoring is even more precious in low-scoring series, and this was one of those.

The Capitals killed 26 of their 28 penalties, including 5 of 6 in the Rangers’ one-goal win in game three and all five in the Rangers’ one-goal win in game six. That’s a 92.9% kill rate. That’s incredible, a big fluffy feather in the caps of kill-leaders John Carlson, John Erskine, Karl Alzner, and Steve Oleksy. Holtby deserves credit as well, but the PK unit actually limited shots against better than most playoff teams (p.s. check out how much Vancouver got lit up while a man-down).

And then there’s the power play. After game 24, I noted that the Caps’ power play wasn’t generating enough shots to deserve its first place slot, and we should expect them to fall off in the back half of the season. Obviously, I meant to say playoffs. The Caps fired the same amount of shots against the Rangers as they did in the regular season (48.7 and 48.3 per 60 minutes, respectively), putting them right in the middle of the pack. On a small volume of shots, Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers held the Caps to a 18.8% conversion rate– mediocre, and reason to worry about next season.

Lightning Round!

Here’s just a whole bunch of stats without a bunch of ugly words to muck it all up.

5

WSH NYR
Goal Differential -4 +4
Shot Differential +21 -21
Even-Strength Shot Attempt % 52.8% 47.2%
Even-Strength Save % 91.2% 95.5%
PDO (shooting + saving) 957 1043
Power Play Opportunities 16 28
Power Play Shots/60 48.7 46.7
Power Play Goals 3 2
Power Play Conversion 18.8% 7.1%
Faceoff Win % 50.8% 49.2%
Blocked Shots 130 161
Escape Goat Jay Beagle Derek Dorsett

Conclusions

  • The Capitals were the better team in the series based on possession, particularly at 5 on 5 hockey.
  • The Capitals committed (or were whistled for) too many penalties despite having the puck much more than their opponent. Discipline problems?
  • An outstanding penalty kill kept the Capitals competitive despite being drastically overworked.
  • Braden Holtby’s franchise goalkeeping was indispensable in warding off a New York offense that outmatched the Caps until game seven.
  • Once the Capitals’ abberatively high shooting percentage regressed, they had no path to victory.
  • Henrik Lundqvist happened.

As far as I’m concerned, the Caps got Halak’d again. While they banked too hard on the belief that their power play could keep on converting  a quarter of all power plays, they compensated by owning the puck at even strength– an encouraging sign for next season. And while a bunch of bad penalties (either in the infraction itself or the adjudication of the officials) put them at a disadvantage, their excellent penalty killers mitigated the damage.

But Henrik Lundqvist allowed less than one goal for every 20 shots on net at even strength, and he didn’t crack once in either elimination game.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

And Now…

All my leftover kitten GIFs.

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  • Andrew Schrader

    At least our losses are cute and cuddly now

  • bskillet

    Lundqvist beat us, it’s that simple. The series shouldn’t have even gone 7 games and if not for him it wouldn’t have, the pp differential didn’t help either but it was Lundqvist.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland
  • JH

    I concur with the point that Lundqvist beat us, but if the penalty minutes were more even, then perhaps he wouldn’t have. Kudos to our PK guys for the truly herioc job they did, but the 28 PP opportunities that the Rangers had were a *killer*, regardless of whether they scored or not. That’s roughly 28 x 2 mins = 56 minutes a man down over seven games. That’s 8 minutes, roughly, a game, where you’re a man down, your guys are getting tired, your snipers are off the ice, their goalie filing his nails…you get the point – there’s an opportunity cost that’s huge even when the Rangers *don’t* score on the PP. Whether the refs were part of a larger NHL conspiracy, or stupid, or lazy, or blind, or tripping on acid, the penalties were a major factor in the loss. When combined with Lundqvist between the pipes, the penalties were a major ingredient in a lethal cocktail.

  • Pat Magee

    We dominated at even strength, and we were too busy killing a horrible powerplay to be at even strength.

  • CM

    I shoulda said this when if first came up but I don’t think that possession chart is all that informative. Quadrants 1 and 4 say teams that never have the puck always lose and teams that always have the puck, win. Ok no shocker there. But then quadrants 2 and 3 where the vast majority of the teams are has virtually no information.

    Maybe if there were more partitions the correlation would be clearer but as it is now, it’s making two obvious statements about outliers and saying next to nothing about the vast majority of teams.

  • http://twitter.com/CAPLDY Sheena Dunn

    I can’t get past the cuddly kittens!!!! Too many on my post.

  • pixiestix

    Torts fired! I hope they televise that press conference

  • Dave at District Sports Page

    I think that saying they were Halak’d again (or Halak’d in the first place) is excuse-making, as if the Caps were entitled to advance based on their record or skill level alone. We’ve seen in the Ovechkin Era time and again this team excuse itself from the playoffs in what fans and pundits have both believed to be premature. But after six seasons of it now, it looks more to me like they have found their talent level and until that talent level rises in some very significant spots, the job of advancing is just going to get more difficult in the new division.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Maybe “hot goalie” is excuse-making, but it’s better than the narrative projection of “entitlement.”

    I opened the piece up by listing how each defeat was different, and that’s important. I think it’s dangerous and foolish to abstract much beyond that. And even if it’s not dangerous or foolish, it’s at least not informative.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    That chart shouldn’t be interpreted as deterministic, just correlative. It just makes the case that VERY strong possession teams win a lot, LOW possession teams win never, and most of the folks in the middle are mostly subject to the whims of chance.

    But yeah, I take your point.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    That’s a good point, but lemme re-position it a bit.

    The penalties hurt the Caps not because they cost goals (PK unit was too awesome), but because they deprived the Caps of 5v5 time– when they were the superior team.

  • Jim Kelly

    I’d also add that Torts (despite the fact that he just got canned) in my opinion out-coached Oates. He made more timely adjustments (which actually is why our PP failed, I think, they adjusted, and Oates didn’t make adequate adjustments in response) and we didn’t. I still think Oates is a great coach though, and hopefully he’ll learn from it.

  • Catherine__M

    If it’s any indication as to what I think about the whole situation: “Son of a Lundqvist” is favorite expression in my house these days.

    Also, you are my favorite person of the week for this post!

    http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m89mvxvl4h1ruxati.jpg

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    hahaha

  • Catherine__M

    So Disqus is flipping out at me and somehow posted the picture twice and then when I tried to fix that, turned me into a Guest :/. Anyway, my sentiment stands!

  • Hockeynightincanada

    When Adam Oates came out after that Bruins game jn March after Hendricks got hung out to dry by his teammates, he said something to the effect of “we need to not engage them in that type of game.” Essentially, that is your head coach telling you that we’re basically a finesse team only, and there is no way we can win a game if we try to respond physically when a team is bruising us within their own building.

    Name a single power forward that McPhee has developed from the draft
    to the NHL. Ovechkin doesn’t count because his primary role was to be a goal-scorer before his physicality. Tom Wilson has only played 3 games, and I can’t make a judgement on him.

    My point being, the Caps have no idea how to develop a real
    power forward. By that I mean a player like David Backes or Chris Stewart of STL, Milan Lucic of BOS, or Scott Hartnell of PHI.

    This franchise has preached about competing with teams that re-built about the same time as they did (Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, St. Louis), and more importantly, claiming to model after Detroit. However, just about every move contrasted with moves by other teams, whether it be from
    drafts to free agency to trades made, as well as rades not made, to trades left on the table.

    Without that external viewpoint on this organization, you will get nothing but PR from McPhee and his handpicked crew of longtime buddies he’s entrenched at every level of the organization. The Caps in these playoffs are essentially the same Caps that lost those 4 playoff runs under Boudreau, 2 of the 3 under Wilson, and 1 under Cassidy. Hunter’s team may have been the closest thing to a playoff-like team that we’ve had.

  • johnnymorte

    Ovi was extremely vocal for the NHLPA, used aggressive scare tactics…Bettman has offices in NY…Hmmm…I wonder

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    See now that is really interesting. One of my favorite players of all time is Chris Simon, and I really miss that kind of presence on the Caps. (Well, aside from Ovi, who I think classifies as a power forward even though I wish he’d be a pure scorer/playmaker with less hitting).

    I’d love a Backes or Looch type on the team, but scoring (really, shooting) is paramount.

  • TheShameOfFife

    Luck, or rather lack of it at key times! Getting Halak’d is essentially bad luck. Running into a goalie who sustains a high save percentage only long enough to beat your team, then regresses, is bad luck. Ignoring the conspiracy theories, getting just over half as many penalties as your opponent in a fairly closely contested series is bad luck. Even within the context of game 7, luck wasn’t with us. GWG scored in the first period by a fourth liner? Bad goal by Holtby but still ‘lucky’ as far as the Rangers were concerned. Second goal, puck hits rangers player, straight onto teammates stick, empty net goal (was that their first shot of the period?). Third goal, attempted shot block deflects puck past goalie. How many times did that happen to the Rangers in the series considering the number of shots they block?

  • Dave at District Sports Page

    Peter, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of your analysis and I’m sorry it came off that way. One shouldn’t discount a top goalie playing well in the playoffs. If there is any “excuse-making” it’s coming at the organizational level, not the analysis level. Anyway, my bigger point is that they haven’t advanced past the second round in the Ovechkin Era simply because they haven’t been good enough. Hope we’re good.

  • JH

    Yes, exactly.

  • yv

    No more disturbing old wounds and Caps discussions for me for a while.
    But just to mention, I have a 7-year old very furry, prize-looking Siberian male-cat. He, despite being big and powerful (20 lb), is very friendly and when was a 2- month kitten looked almost exactly like your second gif kitten.

  • Ralph

    We’d like to believe that the players always want to get better and don’t feel entitled. But that doesn’t mean that we should adopt the same attitude–you can lose a seven-game series while being the better team in the long run. We’d like to believe that the team has total control over their destiny. But you can’t 100% control how the other goalie plays, and we see every year multiple series decided by the goaltending.

    I’d also like to draw the distinction between the 07-11 Caps–who, under Boudreau at least, played at 108+ point paces each year–and the Caps under Hunter and Oates, who both, relatively speaking, squeaked into the playoffs. These last two playoffs, I agree, I don’t think the talent has necessarily been there to go deep. But those first four years, there absolutely was. The team talent level is constantly changing, and I think it’s important to make the distinction between the Boudreau-led teams and the last two teams.

  • Akay15

    I don’t know what it is about my dislike for this man, but I was really happy to hear this: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=672384&navid=nhl:topheads

  • tomj4425

    Hot goalies happen, but champions overcome them. The Caps didn’t do enough to create the “ugly” goals needed to get the job done, similar to 2009. As I’ve read on this site many times: crash the net! I don’t recall too many wild scrambles in King Henry’s crease. Maybe the quick whistles in MSG took away some aggressiveness (Chimmer’s interference penalty comes to mind). But it’s an all-too-familiar pattern in Cap playoff eliminations. There just aren’t many pretty playoff goals.

  • tomj4425

    *2010 = Halek’d

  • Rhino40

    Brouwer not a power forward?

  • Rhino40

    “We’re done here”

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    If I say no, the Rangers will assault me.

    So let’s say yes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=786803997 Scott DeGraw

    Amen brother. So tired of the old “hot goalie” excuse/fan boy apologists. It took more than a hot goalie to beat us, it took our own inability to adapt and overcome. The discussion should be just as much about how we didn’t change our approach in Games 6/7, as how “hot” Lundqvist was. It’s a cheap out…and symptomatic of larger problems with this team’s/management attitude. The yearly shoulder shrug ain’t gonna change us into a championship team…hope things change on that front.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    If champions overcome hot goalies, then they’re not hot goalies. And what you call “overcome” can be completely explained away by the streakiness inherent in small sample sizes.

    The same thing was said about the 09 Caps: that they didn’t crash or cause enough scrambles in front of the net. But the community (including me) reviewed scoring chances and found that not to be true– it’s just what our imperfect memories took away from it.

    (Would I have liked more CRASH THE NET? Always.)

    Either way, my best response to what you said is already in the post:

    “…I suppose somebody could also say the Caps just shot poorly, selecting shots that were easy to save and not creating dangerous scoring chances. Whom we choose to blame or credit may say more about ourselves than it does about a hockey player.”

    Henrik’s save percentage and the Caps low shooting percentage are sides of the same coin. I think MATH offers a better explanation for either one.

  • Kevin011

    Yeah, I dunno why I hate him either!!!

  • Kevin011

    I do believe that’s the greatest NOFX reference I’ve ever seen. When I read it, I actually couldn’t keep reading until I clicked on that link to make sure you went there. Genius. Great season of blogging you guys, keep up the good work!

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Thanks so much!

  • benonijump/Jonathan Kenny

    I’m very late to the discussion but I have thought about this and still do, which probably means I need to get a life, but here goes:

    Yes, Lundqvist was outstanding and surely was the MVP of the series. However, with the exception of G7, Holtby was good enough for the Caps to win this series and potentially do it in less than 7 games. So I’m not gonna go with the ‘we got Halak’d’ excuse. Part of the reason I don’t buy it is we been through this scenario a few times. In fact, it seems every year the Caps draw one of the best goalies in the playoffs. There was Halak, then Roloson,, and Thomas, and of course Lundqvist (for the 4th! time). When we beat Lundqvist twice it was reasoned the Blueshirts didn’t have enough offense. Well, their stars didn’t show up this year either and the bulk of their scoring came from a group of players who combined for a whopping 14 goals during the regular season. That may be what stings the most about this series. NYR was sooo beatable. Obviously we got through Thomas and the Bruins but as much as I like Dale Hunter as a player, he was a shitty coach (there, I said it) and his “system” only worked vs BOS because Holtby was phenomenal. Neither Halak nor Roloson, though they both beat a Pens team stacked with offensive talent, got to the Finals (though the Bolts came very close vs BOS). Lundqvist also hasn’t reached the Finals. All this relates to my final conclusion but before that…

    Gotta say something about the refs, who stunk. They didn’t decide the series but they had a dramatic influence on the in-game momentum. There main violation was what they didn’t call–there were several egregious penalties by the Rangers that went ignored in games 1-6. Then, early in G7, Lundqvist cross-checks a Capital in front of the entire hockey universe and it goes uncalled. The reasoning was that the refs were indicating that they were going to “let the teams play.” But letting the teams play should mean that they will not call borderline/ticky-tack infractions, e.g. the hold of Sidney Crosby by the Isles player that gave the Pens a game-winning PP in OT during their series. Generally these types of penalties often involve a degree of “selling” by the victimized player (as Crosby did). Blatant cross-checks during the game when play has stopped are roughing penalties and should be called. There is a difference between “letting the teams play” and “letting them get away with bullshit.” While I thought Oates and his players handled the refereeing as well as they could, I do have to criticize the Caps upper organization for not being more proactive on this matter during the series. They should have put together footage–easy to do when you have access to it all–of all these “missed” penalties to present to the NHL. One play in particular had me incensed when I saw it. A vid was posted on this page of Ryan Callahan elbowing Jack Hillen in the head. the refs didn’t see it, which I can’t criticize them for, and it wasn’t seen during the TV broadcast. The retaliation by Hillen was seen and he was penalized. What pissed me off was that Brendan Shanahan apparently didn’t see it either, which is inexcusable. George McPhee should have been force-feeding this footage to Shanahan/NHL.com/ESPN demanding some sort of comment and potential discipline. While the elbow wasn’t “Matt Cooke viscious/concussive,” it was a BLATANT elbow to the head, which the league supposedly wants to get rid of.

    The disparity in penalties was most egregious in the games in NY. But it was also in these games that the Caps just didn’t play as well, in particular I’m referring to their physical play. Their hitting decreased dramatically in Gs 3, 4, & 6, averaging 23 hits/game in MSG vs. 43hits/game at the Phone Booth. The impression is that the Caps let the Rangers control play more in NY. The Caps have nobody to blame for this.

    While all the analysis in the above RMNB article is very interesting, one fundamental question is not asked (and answered):
    “What is it that the Bruins did vs NYR that allowed them to close out the series in 5 games while scoring 16 goals on the phenomenal Lundqvist–making him look average–that the Caps failed to do vs NYR?”
    You could ask this same question with respect to the Flyers vs MTL/Halak.
    My conclusion: The Capitals are too addicted to their SKILL, or rather, they don’t take getting ugly goals seriously. Maybe video analysis will show that the Caps crashed the net a lot during this series, but it didn’t appear that way on TV. Regardless of how much or little the Caps crashed the net, there is one thing they never seem to do with regularity and when it matters most: SCREEN THE GOALIE. When the Caps lost to MTL in 2010 Alex Semin had 45 SOG for the series. The criticism was that many of them were easy shots to stop from far away. But those same critics will also say, “Fire the puck on net and good things will happen.” Semin did what he was supposed to do, i.e. shoot the puck. But Halak usually had good sight of the biscuit. Now I saw a clip before the Bruins-Rangers series that showed Chara screening James Reimer. The camera view was from behind the goalie (goalie’s perspective) and it was hard to see the other end of the ice much less the puck. This is part and parcel to the Bruins play. I think about the now-retired Tomas Holmstrom, who parked himself in front of the goalie, generally making the opposing netminders life hell, on just about every shift where he had the chance. And it was very effective. Contrast that image with what you see in this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFW-HES6b8g

    Save for a few seconds courtesy of Joel Ward, Lundqvist generally had good sightlines to the puck in spite of the Caps having TWO extra men on the attack. What we see is the Caps doing a lot of passing trying to set up a perfect shot/open net opportunity. Granted, the Caps net was empty, but I bet if you watch all the Caps PPs in this series it would look the same. The Caps had succeeded all year by telling themselves to stick with the system and good things will happen. Keep firing the puck and eventually it will go in. But when it becomes apparent that the opposing goalie is playing out of his mind, the team needs to ask itself, “What more can we do to make their goalie’s more hellish.” Lundqvist certainly had a more hellish time with the Bruins than with the Caps. You tell me why.

  • Luke

    Laich when he is healthy can grind. Otherwise the team cant forecheck…dont even get me started on backchecking

  • THEOLDROT

    Late comment, but had to point out that the Caps lost because they are a bad team.