Photo: Patrick McDermott, Getty Images
An easy answer as to why the Caps were booted in the 2nd round, again, this year is that Evgeny Kuznetsov went through a terribly timed cold streak. In the last 24 games of regular season and the playoffs, Kuznetsov put up just 6 points (0.25 points per game) and only 2 of those points were at even strength. In the 70 games before that, Kuzy put up 73 points (1.04 points per game). If Kuznetsov either scored or assisted on 2 more goals for the Caps (that’s just 0.4 points per game – which is way below his 1.03 average) they would have likely won that series. What was supposed to separate this year’s Caps from the past was that they had a deadly 2nd line. That 2nd line made it so not everything relied on Ovechkin and Backstrom, but Kuzy’s “cold streak” ultimately ended the Caps season.
But even with Kuznetsov scoring just 1 point (a PP assist) in the series against Pittsburgh, they still should have won and there’s a big reason why they didn’t: they were simply unlucky. Now before you lose your minds and bash me for making excuses, just hear me out.
The Caps lost in six games to the eventual Cup winners, but deserved so much more. Through the whole series Pittsburgh only scored one more goal than the Caps and considering every game was a “one goal game”, besides one (a 3-1 win for the Caps in game 5), this series could have easily flipped to the Caps moving on. But the biggest difference was in “lucky goals”: Pittsburgh scored 4, Washington scored 1. What are lucky goals? Well they are goals you score in a complete fluky way. Usually, for the Caps, this comes to fruition by pucks hitting their own guys and going in or hitting our own guy and going right to an opposing player for an open net.
Let’s go through each game and look at these goals mixed in with some stats to show the Caps deserved a better fate. And if you are just angry at the thought of going game by game pointing out lucky goals, skip to after that and look at the numbers that support it.
Game 1 was a game that really could have gone either way. Possession was almost split down the middle but Pittsburgh had the advantage with 51.8%, nothing special. The Caps came out on top this game with their only lucky goal of the series, the wrap around TJ Oshie OT goal that Murray butts BARELY over the goal line. But this never happens if Bonino doesn’t score a lucky tying goal in the 3rd period. His shot goes off Schmidt’s stick, goes wide, and then hits Schmidt’s skate, changing directions and gets by Holtby (see above at the 1:33:00 mark).
There isn’t much to say here. Pittsburgh deserved the 2-1 win. Caps came out flat-footed for the first 40 minutes and didn’t show up until the 3rd period. No lucky goals either way.
Now, this is the most frustrating game and the turning point to the whole series. The Caps,absolutely, dominated the Pens in game 3 but walked away empty handed. PIT won the game 3-2 with the help of their luckiest goal of the series (0:45 mark above). Cullen comes in on a 2 on 1 and tries to center it to Kuhnhacklk but when he passes the puck it hits Niskanen’s stick, goes almost 6 feet in the air, and goes wide before it hits Kuhnhacklk’s back and goes into the net… like… what? The Caps finished that game outshooting Pittsburgh 49-23 with 67.3% possession! That’s insane! And they lost that game. Like I said, that was the turning point because if the Caps would have won that game like they deserved they would have been up 2-1 in the series going into game 4 against a PIT team with no Letang which would have boosted their moral.
Another frustrating loss, because like game 3, the Caps deserved this win but two very lucky goals by the Pens were the difference. Caps didn’t out shoot the Pens by much, 36-33, but won the possession battle with 53.2% and had 13 High Danger Scoring Chances (HSCF) compared to Pittsburgh’s 6. Pittsburgh’s first goal (1:05 mark) hits Alzner’s leg, flops in the air, hits the ice, changes speed and direction and goes through Holtby. Caps were able to send the game into OT where Pittsburgh won from Weber gifting them the puck (3:50). The puck deflects off Weber and when he goes to coral it he accidentally pushes it right to Hornqvist for a wide open net… again, really?
This game was very much like game 1, it was a more back and forth game that could have gone either way but Caps came away with a 3-1 win. PIT did win the possession battle with 53.1% possession BUT Caps had 17 HSCF compared to PIT’s 7, and 30 Scoring Chances For (SCF) when PIT only had 19, so that tells you that the Caps kept a lot of Pittsburgh’s shots to the outside and their possession numbers were a bit inflated.
And like game 5 was like game 1, game 6 was very similar to game 2 where Pittsburgh outplayed Washington for the first 40 minutes and then the Caps finally showed up for the 3rd period, but lost the game in OT, deservedly.
So to break it down the Caps won 2 games that were somewhat even, lost 2 games that they should have won, and lost another 2 they should have lost. I will never say the Caps DESERVED to win that series, I don’t know if anyone could ever say that about a team in a series, but the Caps deserved a whole lot better than being kicked out in the 2nd round in 6 games. The series should have at least gone to game 7 where the Caps would have had some advantage being at home and having Mr. Game 7 on their roster. But Pittsburgh had 3 more very lucky goals that changed everything, if the Caps just had 1 extra lucky bounce (or 1 less against them) they could be celebrating right now.
I know what you’re going to say, Pittsburgh deserved those extra goals because they worked for them. But look at the following stats and try to say the Caps didn’t work just as hard or harder for their chances:
Scoring Chances For: +13
High Danger Scoring Chances For: +10
High Danger Shots On Net/Goals Differential: +11/-1
Medium Danger Shots On Net/Goals Differential: +9/-1
Low Danger Shots On Net/Goals Differential: -19/-2
So technically, the Caps were more dangerous than Pittsburgh. But where were their bounces off defensemen’s legs, or goals off the back, or Pittsburgh poking the puck right to our guy for an open net? Caps played hard enough they should have gotten those bounces.
And if that isn’t clear enough let’s look at the stat xG, which is expected goals for and against. It’s somewhat a new fancy stat but it helps predict goals through different variables like shot type, distance, angle, rebounds, off the rush, and fenwick. Let’s look at the different series that Pittsburgh played with xG:
NYR: 9.89 PIT: 10.28
WSH: 12.09 PIT: 11.89
TBL: 10.52 PIT: 17.36
SJS: 10.21 PIT: 16.29
As you can see the Caps were the only team with a positive xG differential. It’s also worth noting that after the Caps it was a cake walk to the Cup for Pittsburgh, which statistically goes to show if Caps won the series fans would be posting parade pictures right now. It also reveals how incredibly stupid the NHL playoff bracket setup is, Caps should have never faced Pittsburgh in the 2nd round. Anyways, end of that little rant, let’s compare some numbers. All of the xG stats taken above are at 5v5 like all postsession stats are because the bulk the game is played at 5v5. So because of the Caps hard work, they were expected to score 12.09 goals at 5v5, they scored only 10, and Pittsburgh was supposed to score 11.89 goals at 5v5 but ended up with 13. Now, sure that might be minuscule, but those 2 extra goals for or that 1 less goals against is huge when you consider Pittsburgh only scored 1 extra goal the whole series at all strengths. Now those lucky goals loom huge, as all of Pittsburgh’s lucky goals listed above are at even strength, imagine if just 1 or 2 of those didn’t go in.
And to put things in a bit more perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightening took Pittsburgh to 7 games the very next series and lost by 1 goal after they were -60 in SCF, -36 in HSCF, and -6.84 in xG. But how were they able to last so long? Well looking at their 103.9 PDO will prove it. And how were the Caps taken out in 6 game when putting up more chances than Pittsburgh? How about their 97.8 PDO. If you don’t know what PDO is, it’s luck in numerical form. A 100 PDO is the league’s average combination of save percentages and shooting percentages, if you are above 100 you’re lucky and below 100 you are considered unlucky. It’s not insane to see teams get to 101 and sustain it or go to 99 and sustain that, but Caps ended 2.2 points below, meaning very unlucky, and somehow Tampa Bay were 3.9 points above average which is insanely lucky and still lost.
What all of this means is the Caps were nowhere as bad as their playoff record showed and that there shouldn’t be much panic for the future. Yes, it would be nice to go all in and add some 3rd line scoring threats to put us over the top, but other than that it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Caps staying the same and winning a Cup next season, well, if their luck changes. So come next April everyone needs to start plucking four leaved clovers, chopping off rabbits feet, and promising their unborn children to the hockey gods… well maybe not that last part, but you know what I mean.
By Luke Adomanis