After four games of unnecessary violence and an overdose of special teams play, the Washington Capitals now see themselves with a three games to one lead heading back to the nation’s capital. On Friday, they will hope to finally put the series to bed against their hated rival Philadelphia Flyers.
Surely, all will be talking about how penalties, suspensions, illegal hits, a Philadelphia goaltending change and open shooters on Washington’s power play as the reason why the series has reached such an outcome. However, that is not telling the entirety of the story when you look at the numbers.
For starts, Washington is very thankful for all the power play opportunities given to them throughout the first three games of the series. However, things don’t look all bright when you look at how the most important aspect of hockey is playing out: even strength play. At five-on-five, Washington doesn’t even have the lead in all score-adjusted shot attempts after the first four games in that department at 162.5 to 161.2. When talking all shots on goal, that margin is looking even rosier for Philadelphia at 84.9 to 69.8.
Despite all that, opponents towards analytics will always complain about shot quality; whether it is the speed of each shot, which players are shooting them (last time I checked, a shot that comes off of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s stick is not the same as one coming off Alex Ovechkin’s) or how close they are from goal.
That is where war-on-ice’s definitions of scoring chances and corsica.hockey’s expected goal totals come in to play. In the case of score-adjusted scoring chance data by war-on-ice, Washington begins to turn the tables with a 91.3 to 82.4. Counting those scoring chances inside high-danger zone, Washington is good in that category as well at 42.8 to 35.1. As a result, the boys in red have a 6.78 to 6.09 expected goals count at even strength. Despite Washington having the lead in that category, it should be a telling sign that this series should be much closer than it really is.
To go along with that, special teams have played a major factor in this series due to the incredible amount of physicality (whether you define it as legal or illegal is up to your interpretation) between the two teams. It all started when both teams were doled out with eight power play attempts each in the first two games. Then, without noticing each team’s penalty counts, Ryan White thought Philadelphia was getting the short end of the straw.
What came afterwards was a total of 53 minutes on penalty minutes towards Flyers skaters, including three game misconducts, versus only 14 to Washington. Still, both penalty totals were very high as Game Three resulted in a combined 14 power play opportunities (nine for Washington, five for Philadelphia). While Philadelphia struggled the first three games by going scoreless in their 13 combined power play opportunities, Washington scored eight out of their seventeen attempts.
Even with so many opportunities, the best power play units in the NHL usually score once out every four or five opportunities. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a tamer Game Four saw Washington go scoreless in their two power play chances, while the Flyers got on the scoreboard with their first power play goal of the series. Whether it is because Philadelphia’s lack of adjustments while shorthanded in the first three games or Steve Mason’s ugly shorthanded save percentage from the regular season rearing its ugly head in the worst way possible, Washington sits at an 8-1 advantage in goals while a man up and a 5.54-3.65 advantage in expected goals.
And a Little Bit of Both
Still, the Flyers should be in the thick of things in this series and their Game Four win certainly is a sign of regression to the mean for the Capitals. With less penalties dished out, Philadelphia was able to perform well at even strength; especially in the first two periods. Despite Washington winning the score-adjusted shot attempt battle 56.7 to 42.2, Philadelphia really started on the right foot in the first forty minutes with a 35.6 to 32.1 advantage. In fact, the Flyers really had a series-wide 120.3 to 104.5 advantage at even strength coming into last Wednesday night’s game. As a result, Philadelphia previously had a 4.63 to 3.85 expected goal-scoring advantage at even strength despite losing the actual goals battle four to two.
Washington may have ratcheted up its game in the third period, but Michael Neuvirth was sensational in net last night and led the Flyers to a 2-1 win instead of a 3.13 to 1.52 loss based on all situations expected goals. Despite amassing an amazing 13 goals in the series, it has been quite clear the Capitals haven’t completely dictated the run of play since Game One of the series. Not only did Washington win 2-0, the Capitals had a 2.81 to 1.66 advantage in expected goals, a 36.1 to 25.9 advantage in even strength score-adjusted shot attempts and a 15.0 to 8.9 advantage at even strength score-adjusted shots on goal.
The Presidents’ Trophy winners may be at home next and two of the maximum three games left, but they will have to play a much more complete game if they want to put an end to a Flyers team that is playing a less dirtier game.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork