The Caps Will be Fine in the First Round

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As Caps’ fans, we’re all susceptible to pessimistic expectations, especially when it comes to the playoffs. Probably even more so, when it’s the playoffs following a dominant regular season. 

The game last night probably did little to dissuade the anxiety growing in a large cross-section of the fanbase. And now there’s a lot of fans concerned over the possibility of another first round exit. Well, I don’t think the first round is where the Caps should be concerned. I know, I know, the Caps have now experienced their first 3-game losing streak (at the 80th game!) and they’ve lost 4 of their last 5, 5 of their last 7, 6 of their last 10, and 8 of their last 14. It’s safe to say, the Caps are backing into the playoffs.

But when you look at the last 2 Stanley Cup champions, the Hawks went 4-6-0 in their last 10 last year, and the Kings went 5-3-2 the prior year. I think it’s important to look at the process at this point since the Caps have already gotten the results they needed to get themselves the best possible position in the playoffs. And the process has been improving steadily.

There are analytical models that focus on the process though, and currently the most notorious one is favoring the Caps’ likely first round opponent (the Flyers) in a 7 game series. Micah McCurdy sent shockwaves through the Caps’ fanbase when he revealed his visual that uses his Oscar model’s predictions for the playoffs. Granted, there was a bug in the initial reveal, but after that was worked out, it’s still favoring the Flyers (albeit slightly) to advance out of a 7 game series against the Caps.

As you can see, the model favors the Flyers as 52% likely to best the Caps in a 7 game series. It also predicts the Penguins and Kings as the two most likely teams to meet in the Stanley Cup finals. If you didn’t click on the link above to read about his model, it weights

  • Recent 5v5 unblocked shot generation;
  • Recent 5v5 unblocked shot suppression;
  • Lifetime 5v5 goaltender save percentage, diluted;
  • Recent 5v4 shot generation;
  • Recent 4v5 shot suppression;
  • Recent team 5v5 goals per shot-on-goal (“shooting percentage”);
  • and Home ice advantage

Where recent means the past 25 games worth of data, and shots mean all shot attempts. One thing seemed missing to me. I mean anyone with critical thinking capabilities probably scratched their heads at the thought of a 120 point team being an underdog vs a team that spent the majority of the season looking at a playoff position from the outside. But I’ve mentioned before that the Caps have seemed to reaffirm a focus on their scoring chances, and the data has backed that up. So what I wanted to do was take a deeper look to see how the Caps compare to the Flyers and Bruins, as their likely first round opponent. As reference points, I’m going to also include the Kings and Penguins, since they are prohibitive favorites to go deep in the playoffs.

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The first visual below is the score and venue adjusted Corsi For percentage (abbrv. SA CF%). Sorry for changing nomenclature on you, but Corsica (where this plot is generated) sticks to the legacy names, Corsi and Fenwick, instead of SAT and USAT. Either way, this is a proxy for puck possession, because it measures all shot attempts taken and expresses it as a percentage of the total taken in favor of a team. The score and venue adjustment weights the events based on the score and whether the game takes place at home or away, attempting to dilute the effects from home teams surging when trailing and vice versa. The ribbons represent a 95% confidence interval.

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The takeaway here is that it clearly follows the predictions. The Kings and Penguins are weighing in at a dominant pace, while the Flyers have been playing well lately, and the Caps have just started to turn around a stretch of bad play. The Bruins are below the Caps, and I believe, in McCurdy’s model if the Caps were to meet the Bruins in the first round, the Caps would be the favorite. However, this data doesn’t account for the fact that some systems allow and seem to favor taking any shot presented. Which is a behavior that seems pervasive in the Kings system. Whereas the Caps tend to hold on to pucks and try to get them into the high slot for a better shot.

Fortunately, we still have the functionality of war-on-ice.com, so we can look at the data to corroborate this assertion. And they have a feature that depicts how a team tends to pick its shots on the ice. Below is the Kings’ hextally chart. The top half has all shot attempts (SAT) accounted for, while the bottom half is just shots on goal (SOG). A red point means that relative to the league, the team has more shots for or against at that area, while blue indicates less. So on the left side, which is the offensive side, red is good; while on the right side, which is the defensive side, blue is good. This is full season data.

graph2

So the Kings are an awesome possession team, consistently. But it’s not hard to see why they have a persistently low shooting percentage year after year. They get more shots all around the offensive zone compared to the rest of the league, but the greatest difference (reflected by the dark red areas) is all outside the home plate, where the Kings shoot 21% more often than the rest of the league. They’re good defensively everywhere, though, so no real takeaway there. The SOG also reinforces this pattern, with less offense originating from in close compared to the other areas.

Next, let’s look at Pittsburgh to see if it’s clear why they’re also a favorite amongst analytical models.

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It’s hard to discern patterns from the Penguins’ data. This can be confounded by the coaching change halfway through the season, and war-on-ice doesn’t allow you to separate based on date, they just provide season cumulative data. But the Penguins do tend to get a lot of shots in the high slot and limit shots against to the less dangerous areas. And with the talent they have on offense, the opposition really should not want them getting 25% more shots on goal in the home plate.

Next, we’ll look at the Caps’ likely first round opponent, the Flyers.

graph4

The Flyers are an interesting case. They do relatively well to get more shots in the highest danger area, the low slot. But they get less shots in the high slot. Meanwhile, they tend to inflate their Corsi with more shots from far outside. Additionally, they allow more shots from everywhere, even more so in the high slot and inside and below the faceoff dots. The same pattern persists if we exclude missed shots and blocked shots.

Now, the Bruins, the Caps’ next likeliest opponent.

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The B’s on defense are pretty consistent. With allowing approximately the same number of shots relative to league average in all zones. On offense though, they like to get their shots in the high slot. And don’t get many down low. They also don’t inflate their shot metrics with extra shots from the outside.

Finally we’ll take a look at the Caps’ hextally chart.

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There’s several clear takeaways from the Caps’ shot location data. First is that the Caps really do seem to focus on shots in the high slot. Everywhere inside the faceoff dots the Caps are getting 18% more shots (and shots on goal) compare to the rest of the league. But, the shots at the net mouth are less than league average, so everyone who opines for the Caps to get bodies in front of the goalie, and for them to crash the net are not getting their wish. Defensively, the Caps also seem to allow more shots from the high slot as well. When looking at the Shots on goal allowed in the defensive end, The Caps do well to limit shots everywhere, but especially at the goal mouth, and only allow 5% more shots from the high slot.

So what is borne out of all this data? Well, it shows that there’s more to the Caps’ CF%, and maybe less to the Kings’ CF%; and possibly even less to the Flyers’ CF%, to the point where they probably shouldn’t be the favorite, even if just marginally so. To further expand on this, let’s look at some more intricate data, that reflects some of these shooting patterns. Several metrics that have become available in the last year are scoring chances, and high danger scoring chances from war-on-ice, as well as multiple xG (expected goal) models. xG models make an effort to characterize multiple contextual elements into a single value. Things like score, strength, shot location, shot type, and other variables are considered to account for how likely a particular event is to end up as a goal scored. I’ll be using Corsica’s xG data in this post.

First, let’s look at scoring chance data. This is score-adjusted 25 game-rolling data. The black line outlined in pale yellow is the Penguins, the silver outlined in black is the Kings, the red outlined in blue is the Caps, the black outlined in bright yellow is the Bruins, and the black outlined in orange is the Flyers.

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What is immediately clear, is that maybe there is something to favoring the Penguins, and maybe their inflated shooting percentage isn’t smoke and mirros. But also embedded here, is that the Caps are actually the second best team out of the 5 presented. Far-and-away ahead of the Flyers and Bruins.

Next, we’ll look at Corsica’s xG.

graph9

Yet again, the Penguins are the cream of the crop. But, as was the case in the scoring chance data, the Caps are rounding into form, right in line with the Kings, and the Flyers and Bruins are quite a bit below the other three.

So, it would seem that there’s probably less cause for concern than what’s been permeated across Caps’ fans over the last week. At least if we’re just considering the first round. If they can get out of the first round, and meet the Penguins in the second round, well then, everyone can commence freaking out. Or you can take solace in the performance last night if you’re wont to do. The Caps, with little to play for, took the newly anointed Stanley Cup favorites into overtime and lost in a format that doesn’t exist in the playoffs. Until then, breathe easy for the first round of the playoffs, at least until the Caps go up 3-1 in the series.

By Derek Miller

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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