Can Washington Hold On To a Playoff Spot?


Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin - Photo By Andy Martin Jr
Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin – Photo By Andy Martin Jr

With nine games to go, Washington currently looks like they are at an inside track of a playoff spot. As a team that is in a wild card position, however, others on the outside look at them as one of the teams to hopefully pass over in order to play in late April onwards. While some websites are thinking about the Capitals’ potential playoff opponents, I am more on the skeptical side of things. Hey, when you live in a city that hasn’t had a big name professional sports team win a title in 23 years and haven’t been to a conference finals since 1998, you understand why skepticism should exist. With that in mind, here is the breakdown of how Washington is doing right now and how does that compare to challengers Boston and Ottawa.

82-game pace

As of today, Washington is sitting at 88 points in 73 games, while the surging Senators sit at 85 points in 72 games and the bumbling Bruins sit at 84 points in 73 games. Another way of stating all this information is by mentioning how much each team is on pace for, barring other circumstances, by the end of the 82-game regular season. In this case, Washington is on pace to hit 99 points, while Ottawa and Boston are looking at 96 and 94 points, respectively.

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chart created by Ben Lutz

In terms of momentum, Washington had their best stretch of results from early December to mid January and they have slowly petered off ever since. Meanwhile, who knows what is up with Boston. One week they’re in major decline, the next they look like they are on their major winning streak. No matter what happens to them, this should be considered a disappointing season for the Bruins after two Stanley Cup finals and a President’s Trophy in four years and management knows it. Meanwhile, the Senators have gone from the depths during the tail end of the Paul MacLean era at game 27 (let’s ignore that he’s not the only reason Ottawa was struggling) to finally “figuring things out” from twenty games ago. The next question, is how do we get here.

Campfire Stories

“Put down your spreadsheets”, screams a foaming-at-the-mouths Mike Milbury and Brian Burke, because they always demand to tell their side of the story of how the season has been.

In the land where everything makes sense in Burke’s and Milbury’s heads, Washington may not be a better team, mathematically, but they added some “much needed” grit with the additions to Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in defense. Everything else is secondary, because (duh!) this is how you always win playoff hockey.

As for the Bruins, they have gotten old, Zdeno Chara needs to retire and Tuuka Rask apparently is not as good as he was from previous seasons. The Tyler Seguin trade will not be discussed because that kid has too many tattoos, tweets too many bad things, parties a bit too much and never fits in the locker room of such a classy hockey organization.

Oh, and Ottawa is throwing hamburgers at some goaltender named Andrew Hammond because, apparently, his nickname is The Hamburglar and he is way too awesome to describe to the likes of you. How dare you question his legitimacy via his age (27) and his 2015 AHL save percentage (0.898), this dude is a revelation. Oh, and tell your PETA friends that question what Senators fans are doing to stay out of this!!! We demand to see our baby, Jeremy Roenick, eat more burgers!

Remaining Schedule

Every week, Montreal Gazette columnist Dave Stubbs tweets a chart for each conference mentioning how each team’s schedule looks the rest of the way this season. Here is the latest version from last Monday:

What I like the most about Stubbs’ charts is the strength of schedule ranking. However, this is all based upon points percentage, which is one thing but not the end all of telling how good a team’s strength of schedule is. To make sure that you are talking to Ben Lutz and not Mike Milbury or Brian Burke anymore, we need to remember that mathematically, hockey is a game of probabilities and luck and collecting as many of these as possible is the best chance of winning hockey games consistently.

That all being said, no matter what measurement, Washington could be in deep trouble. The only non-playoff teams the Capitals will be facing are New Jersey tomorrow and Carolina next Tuesday. Afterwards, they will have to play Ottawa and Boston once and the President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers twice. For the Sens, goal differentials and score adjusted puck possession indicate that their schedule will be tough too, but not as difficult as Washington’s. They too have to play the Rangers twice and they will have to play Tampa Bay (my personal favorite to win of the Eastern Conference Finals) and Pittsburgh but they can also get a bit of a breather playing Toronto, Philadelphia and a slumping Florida. For Boston, their schedule is a bit of a challenge, but it is easily the weakest of the three. Anaheim could hit 110 standings points, but their puck possession and goal differential make them look as good as the Bruins. They should have a shot at playing catch up with their games against Carolina, Toronto and Florida twice.

Even Strength

Now that we spooked off Milbury and Burke, we can finally talk about the numbers. All data is adjusted by score affects. Under the following graphs, Washington is in blue and red, Ottawa in in red and black and Boston is in yellow and black.

As much as we want to talk about other factors, almost 75-85% of every hockey game is played at even strength. Therefore, the best indicator for how well a hockey team plays in general is by looking at how well they do at five-on-five.

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10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by


Under new head coach Dave Cameron, Ottawa has gradually become a much better offensive team and are now clicking at an elite level since the March 2nd trade deadline. For Boston and Washington, both teams have been snake-bitten within the last month because they have both been shooting less than 6% while on even strength in the last month. Boston used to hit elite levels offensively, especially when they made their Stanley Cup finals run two years ago. Now they seem to be at a free fall and don’t know what it is like to score goals. Clearly, this is a hockey team that is lacking confidence and may take a while for it to come back quicly. With the Capitals, they are generating shots, especially at an elite level in their recent set of games. They just have to keep up the strong effort and trust that their system is working.

10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by

Speaking of trust, Washington all year, let alone their recent run of games has also been elite defensively. Add in the consistency of Braden Holtby since December and you have the Capitals giving up less than two goals per game at even strength. If anything, goaltending seems to cancel all three teams out, so shot suppression will be the key to how well each team will be performing in the last set of games. Once again, Boston is going in the wrong direction while Ottawa and the Caps are doing all the good things. We need to take time to realize how much Ottawa has improved defensively in this last month. I mean, look at where they started! Apparently, all it takes is less Chris Phillips and more Patrick Wiercioch.

With all that being said, mostly uncontrollable things like shooting percentage and save percentage have made Washington and Boston look much worse in the month of March than Ottawa is, offensively. As a result, the Senators have scored 30 goals at even strength in the last 25 days, while the Caps and Bruins have hit 13 each. It should be said that Ottawa is shooting at an astronomically high level during their stretch with Andrew Hammond in net, so sustaining that or avoiding a complete regression to the mean before the season is over is going to be critical for them.

Another important factor, has been how Ottawa has been very kind with the referees while Washington and Boston have not. Let’s take a look at the impact under the next topic.

Special Teams

This season, Boston has been the worst team in the league at drawing penalties with 248 of them all season. Even though they have been doing a better job at committing less penalties, their lack of bating teams to do the same has given them a consistently poor penalty differential. While Washington and Ottawa have drawn penalties at a top-ten level, the Caps have committed a bit more all season, especially in recent games. The Senators have drawn much less than Washington, especially since Cameron’s arrival to give them a season-wide penalty differential of +13. Discipline in the last nine to ten games is going to be very important as the Calgary Flames have proven all year. The most surprising team in the NHL has benefited the most in penalty differential by leading the league at +68; a full fifteen points ahead of second place Chicago.

10-game rolling graph by
10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by

On the power play, Washington has continued to perform at an elite level all season while Ottawa and Boston have at least shot at slightly above league average rates. I wouldn’t call this category a tie breaker, but if the Caps are in any trouble, feeding the puck to Alex Ovechkin after drawing penalties is not a bad strategy to go through in a small sample of games (even if you don’t want to live and die by it).

10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by
10-game rolling chart by

As for the penalty kill, Boston should be very thankful they not committing many of them, because their save percentage with a man-down has been awful recently. Meanwhile, Washington and Ottawa are saving everything at an elite level recently, but a disclaimer should be out there that Ottawa has been living on the edge in their last set of games while being down a skater. If there’s one chink in the armor of Team Hamburglar, it could be the team’s recent run of giving up too many shot attempts while shorthanded.

So…the Caps should be in the playoffs, right?

The numbers say yes. You would have to think that with Boston developing some really bad habits within the last month or so and not looking elite all season in most areas that they should be done. That all being said, you may never know when a hot streak happens and Boston’s schedule should allow them to perform much better than Washington and Ottawa could in the luck department. Sometimes that’s all hockey is. As hockey analytics expert Garret Hohl would say, hockey is a series of probabilities that either go for you or against you. It’s a matter of picking up as many good probabilities as possible in order to get the best chance of winning. Let’s hope that Washington’s cards continue to perform well or get better in these last nine games.