“I’m an anteater!” “I, also, am an anteater!” (Photo: Bruce Bennett)
Some time in the last seven days, Adam Oates became unsatisfied with his lineup. Perhaps not winning a game in regulation since November 17th was the reason why; no matter. On the 23rd, Oates scratched Martin Erat, who had requested a trade, from the Toronto Maple Leafs game. In Erat’s spot was Eric Fehr, who played every game this week and recorded three points. On the 29th, Oates restored Jay Beagle, who had not played since October 16th but apparently is in awesome shape, to active service. And with Brooks Laich still laid up with a lower-body injury on Saturday, Martin Erat got his sweater back and reclaimed the spot where he started the season: the 4th line.
That’s more moving and shaking than we’ve seen all season, and our numbers reflect it. It seems that the Capitals are now motivated to make changes, and some of those changes have already paid off. The losing streak is over, and the even-strength Capitals are stronger than we’ve seen all year.
These are the numbers as of noon on Sunday, December 1st. My sample doesn’t include power play or penalty kill situations– just 5-on-5 play while the score is within one goal in the first two periods and tied in the third. That eliminates the effects of blowouts and comebacks, when teams are protecting a lead or desperate to get a goal back. Stats of note are highlighted in a powderpuff pink and discussed below.
- The Caps’ team-level even-strength shot-attempt percentage in close games (i.e. puck possession) rebounded from 45.91% to 47.22%, the best we’ve seen in a snapshot so far. There’s a bunch of reason why this may have happened: weaker opponents, better effort, better players, better combinations. Despite the team’s inability to win in regulation lately, they’re becoming stronger at even strength– which is a good thing since the special teams to which we ascribed their early wins have all but dried up.
- After a stint at 3C, Brooks Laich left the lineup after Wednesday’s loss to Ottawa. Laich missed more than 80% of last season due to injury, so we have reason to be worried for him. On the ice, however, Laich’s absence may prove to be a good thing. It makes a reunion of the Black Hole Line (Laich, Brouwer, random unsuspecting victim) an impossibility and allows a guy like Eric Fehr (51.4% SA% to Brooks’ 40.3%) to get a sweater.
- Fehr, by the way, is still plagued by some really crummy goaltending, a team-low 83.9% Sv% inside our sample. That’s unfortunate, but not necessarily a reflection of Fehr’s defensive abilities. Fehr had two goals and an assist this week. He’s a top six player. Tell me he’s not.
- On the flip side is Troy Brouwer, who was on for three goals-against in our sample this week and still enjoys one of the highest on-ice save percentages on the team: a stout 93.4%. Brouwer’s possession stats (SA%) ticked up ever-so-slightly this week, suggesting that simply being apart from Brooks Laich may not be enough to solve what’s ailing Troy.
- While we’re on the topic of lucky and unlucky save percentages, the Caps’ top line (Ovechkin, Backstrom, usually Johansson) has enjoyed great goaltending (94.4%, 94.5% Sv%). While Alex Ovechkin leads the league in individual shot attempts, he’s also allowing a crazy ton towards his own net. I don’t recall Ovechkin ever being an exemplary two-way forward, but now that the renaissance is in full swing, I’d like to see more attention paid towards breaking up D-zone time.
- Last week I said this about Marcus Johansson: “[while he] seems to be enjoying the high esteem of Caps fandom lately, [Johansson] still needs to shoot more– not only to get himself some goals, but also to make the Caps’ top line a truly multi-dimensional threat that is harder to defend.” Johansson had eleven shots on goal this week, and the percentage of shot attempts going the right way (SA%) jumped up from 44.3% last week to 48.2% this week. Very, very encouraging.
- Alex Urbom earned a benching and a scratch after allowing Danny Briere to harangue Braden Holtby on Friday (~50 seconds into the video below). Urbom has been the Caps’ weakest defender, and– sad to say– the team is stronger while he’s eating nachos in the press box.
- For the record, here is a player usage chart for the Capitals defense (minimum 10 games). The y-axis shows how tough their competition is (higher = hard), the x-axis shows zone starts (right = more starts in the O-zone), the bubble color tells you if the team is stronger or weaker when that player is on the ice, and the bubble size tells you by how much.
- With Urbom out, the Capitals brought in Dmitry Orlov— friend to truckers along US-15; EZ Pass wielder; first-time caller, long-time listener of sports talk radio. Orlov got a shot on goal on Saturday night, and while he kept the puck out of the net, he was stuck in his own zone for most of the night (36.8 SA%)– though it’s possible his D partner, Tyson Strachan (not my favorite player), might be a factor there. No one thought Orlov would immediately fix the defense, but I do think he’s an improvement over Urbom. And while most of the D corps improved this week (except for Carlson, who got smoked by Tavares on Saturday), there is still work to be done, and I think that work will require George McPhee’s intervention.
- But maybe Strachan shouldn’t be taking 60% of his non-neutral zone starts (ZS%) in the defensive zone? Just a thought?
- The fourth line had been impressing me a bunch this season, but not so much lately. Their goal on Saturday was a great anecdote of an energy line getting rewarded for tough play, but the larger pattern isn’t so sunny. Aaron Volpatti and Tom Wilson had been relative bright spots in possession, but in the last five games they’ve dragged down the team’s possession between 13 and 30% (Corsi Relative). I don’t know what changed, but let’s keep an eye on how the grinders grind this upcoming week.
- GP: Games played
- TOI: Time on ice
- GF: Capitals goals for which the player was on the ice
- GA: Opponent goals for which the player was on the ice
- SA%: Percentage of shot attempts (from both teams) that went towards the opponent’s net, excluding blocked shots
- Sh%: Capitals’ shooting percentage while the player was on the ice
- Sv%: Capitals’ goalie save percentage while the player was on the ice
- PDO: The sum of Sh% and Sv%, a number that regresses closely to 100 in larger samples; a proxy for luck, in a sense– i.e. high ≈ lucky
- ZS%: The share of shifts the player started in the offensive zone, excluding neutral-zone starts; data not limited to close games.