Alex Ovechkin (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
The Washington Capitals aren’t likely to enter the post-season as advanced stats juggernauts like the Los Angeles Kings, but their win Tuesday showed they’re relying on a different style to win games.
Before the season started, everyone knew the Washington Capitals were good. How good, exactly, was up for debate, but it’s hard to argue with anyone who picked the Capitals as potential Stanley Cup champions before the puck had even dropped on opening night.
With their 3-1 victory Tuesday over the Los Angeles Kings, the Capitals became just the second team in NHL history to have 41 wins at the 55-game mark of the campaign. The only other club as successful was the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, a club lead by a late-20s core of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Niklas Kronwall. That Red Wings group rolled through the Western Conference before downing the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games to take home the Stanley Cup.
That’s special company for this Capitals team to share and should be cause for great expectations, but, at the risk of raining on any parade plans, underlying numbers might give some pause when considering Washington a threat.
When the 2007-08 were dominating the league, they were doing so near the very beginning of the advanced statistical revolution. Possession numbers, combined shooting and save percentages and the tools we use to measure underlying statistics at present were in their infancy. But with what was available, the 2007-08 Red Wings were one of the early statistical darlings, in many ways like the present-day Kings.
That Red Wings team dominated possession in a way few teams have since. Over the past eight seasons, that Detroit team’s 58.5 shot attempts for percentage is the highest recorded, plus-43 goal differential is eighth-best and nearly 61 percent of the time the Red Wings began their shifts in the opposition’s zone. They were well-coached and stacked from top to bottom. No matter who they played, that Red Wings team was better both on paper and statistically.
This season’s Capitals are much the same on paper, boasting talent that makes you think of a video game dream team. It’s statistically, though, where the comparisons stop.
Through 55 games, the Capitals are scoring 2.66 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which is the best rate of any team in the league. Of course, any team with Alex Ovechkin, one of the greatest goal scorers the league has ever seen, is going to boast a superior offensive weapon to almost any team they come up against. Add in all-world playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, emerging star Evgeny Kuznetsov and the play of defender John Carlson, and you have a unit better than almost any other team in the league. It’s clear why the Capitals are an offensive juggernaut.
Even with that kind of offense, the concern arises from the Capitals' overall possession and ability to out-chance opponents. Following Tuesday night’s games, Washington has the 16th-best 5-on-5 possession numbers with a 50.2 shot attempts for percentage. They’re equally as average when it comes to high-danger scoring chances. The Capitals generate 10.7 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and allow 10.5. So far, Washington has been able to outscore the numbers with a 9.0 shooting percentage at 5-on-5.
But you can’t win a game on numbers alone and, like a few teams before them, the Capitals could buck whatever the numbers might say thanks to Braden Holtby. The 26-year-old had the best season of his career in 2014-15 with nine shutouts, a 2.22 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Incredibly, though, he’s improved beyond that this season. He hasn’t posted near as many shutouts — he has only two and is on pace for three — but his 2.16 GAA and .926 SP are improvements. The same goes for his .934 SP at 5-on-5, which is a step up from his .930 mark last season.
Holtby is a difference maker the kind of which not even the 2007-08 Red Wings had. So while Detroit boasted a league-best possession rate and a stellar roster, their goaltending situation — with an aging tandem of Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood — was nowhere near as good as Washington’s with Holtby.
In a lot of ways, if one were to make a Cup-winning comparison for the Capitals, a good parallel could be the 2010-11 Boston Bruins. Boston’s final record was nowhere near as good as Washington’s stands to be, nor did they have the offensive firepower. But that Bruins team was backstopped to a Stanley Cup thanks to an other-worldly performance by Tim Thomas and an offense that scored at opportune times. Thomas finished the season with a .945 5-on-5 SP and the Bruins managed an 8.3 shooting percentage over the campaign. Sure, Holtby’s performance hasn’t been Thomas-like, but Boston’s offense wasn’t able to produce like Washington’s either.
Tuesday’s game may have been the perfect case of a team that wins because they simply overpower opponents when the opportunity presents itself and relies on stellar goaltending the rest of the way. In a potential Stanley Cup final preview, the Kings, a Western Conference favorite, had a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of nearly 60 percent, but gave Washington 10 good chances. The Capitals scored twice while goaltender Philipp Grubauer did the rest. And that’s just the way Washington stands to succeed.
The Capitals will no doubt give up chances, their goaltending will be there to stand tall. And when the opposition falters and gives Ovechkin or Backstrom or Kuznetsov a chance, Washington’s firepower will make defenses pay. The Capitals’ 41st regular season win showed just that, and they’ll have to hope their style can lead them to 16 more come the post-season.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)