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.
Let’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
I 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.
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.
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
To 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.
This 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.
Here’s just a whole bunch of stats without a bunch of ugly words to muck it all up.
|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%|
|Escape Goat||Jay Beagle||Derek Dorsett|
- 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.
All my leftover kitten GIFs.