Week 16 for the Washington Capitals was as light a work week as one gets for an NHL team. Postponement of their contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday made for a one-game week, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. It was not the way the Caps might have wanted to go into the All-Star Game break, but the break came at a welcome time.
The overtime loss earned the Caps a point for the week, but it was still the first non-winning week since they went 1-1-1 in Week 5. It did not keep them from going into the All-Star Game break with the league’s best record at 35-8-4. Their 74 standings points are four more than the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Caps have six games in hand. Their 1.57 standings points per game is well clear of the second-place Dallas Stars (1.34).
If you are trying to divine anything out of this, consider the history of teams leading the league in points at the major season breaks (All-Star Game or Olympics) since the 2004-2005 lockout:
Let’s think of this as an incentive to buck the trend.
Offense: 3.00/game (season: 3.32 /game; rank: 1st)
The Caps headed into the All-Star break with the league’s top scoring offense, a ranking they have not finished a season with since they led the league in 2009-2010 with a scoring average of 3.82 goals per game (still the top scoring offense of the post 2004-2005 lockout period). It is a 12.2 percent improvement on the scoring average they took into last season’s All-Star game break (2.96).
In 47 games to date the Caps scored five or more goals 12 times and have a record of 12-0-0 in those games. In the 22 games in which they scored four or more goals they are 21-0-1. Compare that to last season when the Caps scored five or more goals seven times in 46 games going into the All-Star break with a record of 5-1-1. In 16 games in which they scored four or more goals they had a record of 12-2-2.
Defense: 4.00/game (season: 2.19 /game; rank: 2nd)
If defense wins championships, the Caps have one capable of achieving that outcome. Had they not allowed the goal in overtime to the Flyers last Wednesday, the Caps would have the best scoring defense in the league. As it is, they went into the break with the second-best scoring defense, the 2.19 goals per game they allowed substantially better than their second best performance since the 2004-2005 lockout (2.33 goals per game in 2010-2011).
The Caps possession numbers to date have far underperformed their win-loss record, and that might be the biggest concern at the break. Washington ranks 14th in the league in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall (50.4 percent), eighth in score-adjusted Corsi-for (52.0 percent), and 16th in close score situations (49.6 percent). Those numbers are a bit under the ones the Caps posted heading into last year’s All-Star break – 51.5 percent overall, 52.3 percent in score-adjusted Corsi-for, and 52.7 percent in close score situations (numbers from war-on-ice.com).
Goaltending: 3.98 /.875 (season: 2.08 / .928 / 2 shutouts)
At this year’s All-Star game break there are 35 goaltenders who have logged at least 1,200 minutes of ice time. Of that group, Braden Holtby ranks at or near the top in a number of categories:
- Wins: 30/1st
- Goals-Against Average: 2.07/4th
- Save Percentage: .929/7th
- Even-Strength Save Percentage: .937/7th
He has been the key part in the Caps’ goaltending profile that is flirting with a team goals against average of 2.00 per game and a save percentage bumping up against the .930 mark overall. Holtby is, at the break, on a short list of candidates to win the Vezina Trophy.
What the Caps have had in addition to Holtby’s excellent start is fine relief goaltending. Philipp Grubauer shook off a sluggish start to go 5-3-1, 2.12, .925 in 11 appearances. He has been even better of late. In his last six appearances covering 265 minutes of ice time, Grubauer is 3-1-0, 1.36, .955.
In both Holtby and Grubauer the Caps find themselves in better position at the position than they were heading into the All-Star break last season. Holtby was having a fine season, posting a 22-9-8/2.26/.921/4 shutout record at the break. What they were not getting enough of was solid netminding in his absence. Justin Peters was 2-4-1/3.52/.864, and those numbers dragged the overall goaltending numbers to 2.47/.913.
The better backup goaltending has not made an appreciable dent in Holtby’s workload, though. Last season he had 40 appearances in 46 games heading into the All-Star break, logging a total of 2,332 minutes. This season, through 47 games going into the break, he has 39 appearances and 2,264 minutes, about four fewer periods of hockey. Even in shots faced, Holtby’s workload is similar to last year’s. At this time last year he faced 28.8 shots per 60 minutes. At the moment, that number is 28.9 shots per 60 minutes.
Power Play: 0-for-2 / 0.0 percent (season: 26.8 percent; rank: 1st)
Week 16 might have been one game’s worth of action, but it was representative of the team’s power play in a strange way. At the end of their 4-3 overtime loss to the Flyers, a game in which they had just two power play chances, the Caps ranked 24th overall in power play chances for the season. They ranked 28th in power play chances on home ice. That they would still lead the league in total power play goals scored (38) and rank third in power play goals scored at home (23) says a lot about the most efficient power play in the league overall (26.8 percent) and on home ice (30.0 percent).
The total chances do, however, represent a bit of an improvement over where they were going into the break last season. At this time last year, the Caps had 135 power play opportunities in 46 games. At the moment they have 142 opportunities in 47 games. They are more efficient with those opportunities, posting a 26.8 percent overall power play this season compared to 24.4 percent at this time last season.
The big difference, year-to-year, is what the Caps have done with those power play goals scored. What they have done is win more often. In fact, the Caps have yet to lose a game in regulation when scoring a power play goal (22-0-2, including 13-0-0 at home). Last season at the All-Star break they were just 13-8-7 in game in which they recorded at least on power play goal.
What is perhaps most encouraging about the power play improvement is that it is not a function of the production of Alex Ovechkin. At the All-Star break last season, 12 of his 27 goals were scored on the power play. As of this weekend, 11 of his 28 goals scored this season were recorded with the man advantage.
Penalty Killing: 4-for-5 / 80.0 percent (season: 84.7 percent; rank: 4th)
The difference on the other side of special teams from year-to-year at the All-Star break boils down to one word – discipline. Through 47 games this season, the Caps are tied for the sixth fewest number of shorthanded situations faced (144). Through 46 games at the break last season the Caps had faced 156 chances, a reduction of better than eight percent. It has been part of a significant improvement in penalty killing efficiency. At the All-Star break last season the Caps were killing penalties at a 79.5 percent rate. Today, they rank fourth in the league with a penalty kill more than five percentage points better.
Success on the penalty kill seems to bear little relationship to wins and losses this season. The Caps are 20-5-1 when posting a perfect penalty kill, 15-3-3 when they allow the opponent at least one power play tally. Instances of shorthanded situations are a bit of a different story. The Caps are 26-6-2 when facing three or fewer shorthanded situations, 9-3-2 when they face more than three such situations.
In the end…
The All-Star game break provides an opportunity to take stock and see just if, where, and how the team has improved on a year-to-year basis. The Caps have that gaudy record that looks like Secretariat’s stretch run in the Belmont Stakes in 1973. They have not done it the way the new generation of methodologists would argue is key to success, by dominating possession statistics. In that regard, the Caps are a rather ordinary team. This should give fans pause who want to find a place to set up their lawn chairs for the championship parade in June.
What they have done is avoid the hills and valleys (mostly the valleys) that a team usually encounters over the course of an 82-game season. It is a team that can be characterized as “taking care of business,” and that shows up in a couple of performance statistics – early game performance and goal differential by period. The Caps have displayed a talent, not just of taking a lead (they have the seventh-highest rate of leads taken to games played – 55.3 percent), but in holding it. Their 25-1-0 record when scoring first leads the league in winning percentage (.962). And, they have yet to lose a game in regulation when leading after one period (17-0-0) or when leading after two periods (26-0-1), the only team in the league that can make that claim.
The goal differential by period reflects a certain focus, a “60 minute” approach that has been lacking among many previous editions of the club. Until they allowed two goals to the Flyers in the lone game of Week 16, the Caps were the only club in the league with a plus-10 or better goal differential in each of the three regulation periods. As it is, they are plus-9 in the first periods of games, and their plus-22 in each of the second and third periods of games is tops in the league for both.
It is hard to say that there is room for improvement for a team with a 35-8-4 record at the All-Star game break, but the possession numbers do stand out as something to follow as the stretch run begins on the 2015-2016 season. If those measures improve, the Caps will be an even more formidable team than the one that dominated in the pre-All-Star game portion of the season.
Three Stars at the Break:
- First Star: Braden Holtby (30-5-3, 2.07, .929, two shutouts)
- Second Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (15-34-49, plus-24, 3 game-winning goals)
- Third Star: Alex Ovechkin (28-14-42, plus-20, 5 game-winning goals)