Another season, another playoff disappointment. That’s what almost everyone will remember of the 2015-16 Washington Capitals and not the fact that they had their second greatest regular season in franchise history. There have been plenty of signs, however, that showed in advance that teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins had a wonderful chance of beating them in the playoffs.
At the end of the day, Washington banked too much on shooting percentages that tend to fluctuate horribly at even strength. Along with that, the Capitals once again banked on having the best power play in the league save them if they ever get into trouble. Again, this is a category that is not sustainable come playoff time. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was the best even strength team in the Eastern Conference since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach. Washington has solid at five-on-five play based on shot attempts, but for the second straight year, they weren’t within the top five for the entirety of the regular season.
What’s frustrating is Washington had their chances to win this second round series themselves. Pittsburgh may have won the total score-adjusted shot attempts battle at even strength 307.9 to 302.1, but the Capitals had the edge in war-on-ice’s definition of scoring changes (150.5 to 137.4) and high danger-zone scoring chances (62 to 52). If you just include Games 3 through 5, Washington obliterated the Penguins in dangerous scoring chances 38.1-16.7. As a result, the scores for those three games were expected to be 8.96 to 6.63 in favor of Washington according to corsica.hockey. Instead, Matt Murray decided to crash the party and both teams ended up scoring seven goals with the Penguins winning two of those games. Even if you want to say that Braden Holtby wasn’t good enough this series, he still found a way to give up less total goals (16 in the six games combined) than he was expected to (17.03).
At the end of the day, it has been obvious since the Penguins’ 6-2 regular season win over the Capitals on March 20th that Pittsburgh is not only the better team, but they are favorites to play in the Stanley Cup Final. With fellow puck possession masters Los Angeles and Anaheim eliminated in the first round, the Penguins now have a great chance of winning their fourth championship in franchise history. That shouldn’t be something for Washington to be ashamed about. However, the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins are a team that the Capitals need to see as the standard for winning a Stanley Cup.
The real meaning of the word “Failure”
The thing that will not be avoided by everyone in the hockey world is seeing the Capitals as a team that “chokes” in the playoffs. After all, having a 40-44 record in the postseason since the 2007-08 will give plenty of people an explanation as to why that is the case. However, the 84 postseason games Washington has played in the last nine years are the seventh most out of any team in the NHL. Only the San Jose Sharks have played more playoff games during that span without making it to a Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, no other team in the league has played more without even going to a Conference Final series. It’s not without Washington trying, however.
During the last nine years, Washington has had an unadjusted all-situations goals for percentage of 50.4-percent. Of the 15 NHL teams that have played over 45 playoff games in the last nine years, the Capitals only have the eighth highest percentage. However, if we were to use expected goals for percentage, that number increases to 52.0-percent. Only San Jose, Detroit and Pittsburgh have a better mark in expected goals for percentage than Washington does from that same 15-team group. If you dive more into the numbers, the Capitals are even more unlucky than you think.
In the last nine years, Washington has only outscored their opposition in the postseason 204 to 201. If you use expected goals, the Capitals show a more interesting performance; outscoring the opposition 240.6 to 227.9. So while the Capitals are stopping almost 27 goals on the defensive end, their offense has been snake bitten by about 37 goals.
When it comes to asking if Braden Holtby has done his job in trying to lead the Capitals to the Stanley Cup, he most certainly has since becoming a postseason starter in 2012. While the 26-year old has been in net for 46 playoff games, he was expected to give up over 127 goals thanks to the types of shots he has faced. Instead, Holtby only allowed 90 of them. If you make that difference into a per 60 minute rate, Holtby has saved 0.768 goals more than he should have per hour. Only future hall-of-famer Henrik Lundqvist comes close to his mark at 0.698 goals saved more than expected per 60 minutes and he has achieved that in 103 playoff games. Clearly the defense is not the problem for Washington’s woes in the postseason.
Trying Their Best to Unleash the Fury
Offensively, is where the vast majority of the blame should lie. This postseason alone saw Washington put up 29 goals in 12 games when they really should have scored 34.8 instead.
Still, expecting to score more in the playoffs based on the data alone means the Capitals have to be doing something right to set such high expectations. First, their 61.0 total shot attempts per 60 minutes at even strength are the highest of any team in the NHL during the postseason throughout the last nine years. If you want to complain shot quality, there is some evidence that might exist. While the Capitals have had the fifth best scoring chance rate during even strength at 28.0 per 60 minutes, that number dips to 27.7 in the postseason. However, if those scoring chances occur from high danger areas at even strength, Washington goes from a mediocre 13th-best in the NHL at 10.9 per 60 minutes, to the league’s fifth best at 11.2. Only San Jose tops the Capitals in that category while playing more playoff games. If you want to talk about all shot attempts that don’t get blocked, Washington improves on that in the postseason as well. In the regular season, they shoot 41.2 of those types of attempts per 60 minutes at even strength. That number improves to 42.1 per hour in the playoffs. Receiving bad luck at even strength isn’t all of where the Capitals problems lie.
Take note that in the last nine years, no other team has dominated on the power play in the regular season like Washington has. Since 2008, the Capitals has converted on 22.1-percent of their power play opportunities, while San Jose is the closest to them at 21.0-percent. In the playoffs, that conversion rate plummets to a shocking 17.7-percent. How how on earth does a man-advantage system get so much worse when the games matter most? It’s not total shot attempts because that number improves from a rate of 107.5 per 60 minutes to 113.9 in the postseason. It’s not about failing to get off dangerous shots either as the Capitals improve in all scoring chances (54.9 per hour to 57.2 per hour) and high-danger scoring chances (20.9 per hour to 22.1 per hour) from the regular season to the playoffs. As a result, Washington is supposed to score 61 goals in the playoffs during the last nine years and have a power play conversion rate of 21.2-percent. Instead, they have scored 51.
This postseason was just another culmination of what you see out of the Washington Capitals every year since Alex Ovechkin has joined the NHL. The team plays a style that is conducive to winning championships, but nothing goes in the back of the net. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby does his best to outmatch all the bad luck that continues to be unleashed upon not just a franchise that doesn’t have a championship in its 41-year history, but a city that hasn’t seen a championship in 25 years. Another year with mostly the same cast and set of coaching systems will come back next year, but time is running out for this team to change its luck. Thanks to advanced statistics, we can conclude that that’s hockey for you in most nutshells.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork