Visualization: @IneffectiveMath

On Wednesday night, the Capitals lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout. That game carried extra weight as those teams are likely to face one another in the first round of the playoffs: Washington as the one seed, Philadelphia as the eight.

On Thursday afternoon, esteemed hockey data visualization person Micah McCurdy released the startlingly pretty graph you see excerpted above. It shows first-round match-ups and each team’s likelihood to advance past that round and beyond.

Micah’s model has the Capitals facing the Flyers — and losing — in the first round. Sorta.

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Photo: Saam

The Caps have won the Presidents’ Trophy and they’ve got the merch to prove it. None of this should be a surprise, yet why do I feel so uneasy?

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When I first started designing my hockey-themed basement last year (please notice I didn’t say man cave because women can have caves too), I really wanted a goal light. In a perfect world this goal light would be connected to my wifi, synced to games, and go off when the Capitals scored. Even better: it’d have a horn.

I never thought I’d find something like this. And then Budweiser Canada invented it.

I’m going to be honest. There are things in this world that would be nice to have but you don’t really need. Then there are things that are nice, but you downright need to have in your life. And guys, the Budweiser Goal Light is the latter. It’s life changing.

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The Caps Are Coasting Towards a First-Round Loss

Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY

Sunday night’s defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins has left some Washington Capitals fans in angst. This team, who has been described as a Stanley Cup contender so often this season, did not look as such in their 6-2 loss. But that’s just the most recent point in a longer, concerning pattern.

I’ve caught myself recalibrating my expectations for the Caps over the last few weeks. As of right now, I no longer think they are the Team of Destiny. This is not The Year. The road they’re on right now ends in the first or second round of the playoffs.

It’s not too late to change course, but we must first acknowledge that the course we’re on now is a bad one.

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It’s never fun to watch the Caps lose — especially when it’s a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on national television. The Caps came out hard, but could not handle the Pens’ speed, falling behind two goals in the game’s first ten minutes. The Pens would pull away later in the second and third period, scoring four unanswered goals.

The Caps gave up five even-strength goals. Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik were on the ice for four of the Pens’ six tallies.

“We got exactly what we deserved tonight,” Barry Trotz said after the game.

“I’m not going to let guys off the hook,” Trotz continued. “There’s no excuse for the sloppy play and the lack of execution when the heat was on. We had some guys who were not strong tonight. You can’t do that against a team that’s trending well. They’re probably the hottest team [in the NHL].”

Let’s take a look at the Pens six goals and see what patterns we find.

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Here’s How You Ranked the Capitals Defensemen

Nick Wass

Photo: Nick Wass

Last summer, I asked twitter to rank Washington’s blue line. I’m sure I had a hidden agenda when I did it, but I can’t remember what it was anymore. Probably something about Nate Schmidt being awesome. Yeah. That sounds right.

Apart from injuries and a couple depth moves, the Caps’ defense has been remarkably stable this season. But in light of a few bad games for Orlov, Carlson’s re-injury, and Niskanen’s hot streak, I thought I’d try again.

The results, he said with a dramatic pause, may shock you.

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Look I’m not superstitious, but if I put my pants on right-to-left instead of left-to-right, I take them off, light them on fire, throw them in a trash can, and jump back in bed. Try again tomorrow, right? I hate it when people call me superstitious. No, I’m not superstitious.

[Realizes I forgot to dab 3 drops of shampoo in my hand instead of the customary 2, begins panicking.]

Okay, fine, I’m superstitious. But this is why I needed to share this with you. Over the weekend, my parents visited my house and handed me a light-blue tin can, which had an embossed gingerbread man design on the top. I had no idea what was inside, but my mother had this crazed, excited face like she had just won the lotto. I opened the tin can only to find the greatest thing I have ever seen in my life. At that moment I understood.

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Photo: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

After missing 40 games with a lower body injury, 35-year-old Brooks Orpik returned to the Capitals line-up in mid-February. In his return, Orpik had a new defense partner in Dmitry Orlov.

The pairing was fascinating, at least for me, because it combined the Caps’ strongest and weakest defensemen, according to possession. Orpik and Orlov had rarely been a tandem before, with Orpik spending most of his Caps career beside John Carlson (currently injured) while Orlov had mostly been with his right-hand man Nate Schmidt.

Orlov’s and Orpik’s styles could not be more different. They’re defensemen from different eras, informed by different philosophies. Orpik is a physical player expected to clear the crease and limit opponent shot quality. Orlov, meanwhile, endeavors to move the puck out of the defensive zone quickly.

“Everybody’s changed a little bit right now,” Orlov told me after a recent Caps practice. “Everybody’s trying to do fast game and everything should be made fast. Make fast plays and, for sure, skating is a big part of this game right now and everyone should be a good skater.”

Orlov’s goal is to start an attack and generate shots in the offensive zone. There the 24-year-old Russian can be a game-breaker with his dangling ability and cannon of a shot from the blue line. His game is fast, fast, fast.

But Brooks Orpik is old school: the late 90’s definition of a shutdown defenseman. Like Scott Stevens before him, Orpik looks to rail players and inflict a physical toll on them in the defensive zone. The former Stanley Cup champion can be a steadying influence for a younger defenseman with limited minutes, but his best skating days are behind him. Orpik wants to slow the game down and play a war of attrition.

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Monday Morning Reality Check: The Caps Are Among The Best Ever

The Caps have 90 standings points and it’s not even March yet. With a 43-10-4 record, Washington is a virtual lock for the playoffs. They’re ranked number one in goals-for and number two in goals-against. No one can stop them, at least not for long.

Ninety-six points pretty much guarantees a playoff spot (unless you’re the 2015 Bruins), and the Caps are just six short of that. With a good run this week, the Capitals could record their 96th point on Friday. With 22 games left to play.

Here’s the schedule for this week.

This Week

Those are three eminently winnable games. In other words, the Capitals could lock up a playoff spot before March.

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How the Capitals Can Hack the Schedule and Rule the Playoffs


Photo: Amanda Bowen

If you’ve yet to come across it, I highly recommend giving Tom Haberstroh’s recent splendid piece of reporting for ESPN The Magazine a read. It sinks its teeth into the grisly nature of the NBA’s 82-game schedule, putting a spotlight on the immense physical toll it puts on its players. The story itself isn’t necessarily a revelation, but is important nonetheless because it gets to the root of the issue stemming from systemic flaws the league willingly inflicts upon itself.

The comparison between the NBA and NHL isn’t seamless. There are fundamental differences between the two sports. In basketball significantly fewer players are relied upon to carry the load. The tread on the tires can accumulate particularly quickly for those guys given how much they’re asked to do on a nightly basis. Regardless, the idea that performance dips under fatigued conditions holds true in hockey just the same. The ability to control territorial play, generate more goals than the opposition, and ultimately win games all precipitously declines with decreased rest, lending credence to the phenomenon of “schedule losses.”

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