Identifying the turning point in the Capitals’ season

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There’s no question the Capitals are experiencing a resurgence in their season. After a sluggish start, the Capitals have turned things around, and are now playing the best hockey in the NHL. How did this happen so abruptly? We decided to take a closer look at the ebbs and flows of the season, both statistically and from an overarching perspective, in an attempt to identify the definitive course-changes. 

A lot has been made about the Caps elevated level of play since New Years Eve, but the real “turnaround” happened much earlier in the season.

A Sluggish Start
First and foremost, calling it a drastic turnaround might be overstating it a bit, as the Caps were not that bad in the first part of the season. However, many might say the team didn’t look like a playoff contender in the early going. In the first 22 games, the Caps were a respectable 13-7-2, but consistency and solid play were lacking, and talk about a Stanley Cup run seemed to be fading fast.

Method to the Madness
In the early stages of the season, Trotz started each day with new line combinations. As a result (intentionally or unintentionally), he introduced a sense of urgency. One could assume that Trotz’ perpetual line tinkering in the early going was used to collect analytics data and test the chemistry of any and all line combinations that made sense. All of this leading to Trotz’ ideal starting lines.

Wake-Up Call
The proverbial “eye-opener” came in back-to-back loses to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on November 26th (Game #21) and the Islanders at home on December 1st (Game #22). Looking back, the loss to the Islanders can be representative of “rock bottom” – the low-point in the Capitals season, so far.  In that game, the Caps play was uninspired, losing 3-0. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov would make two critical turnovers that directly led to two of the Islanders goals. It is here where the turn around would begin.

It’s “Go Time”
The Caps would then travel to Tampa without TJ Oshie and lose a highly contested squeaker, 2-1 in a shootout (Game #23). The Caps would then return home for a 4-3 OT win against Buffalo (game #24). TJ Oshie would return in the next game for a 4-3 win against Boston (game #25). In that game, the Caps would let a three-goal lead slip away in the 3rd period, but ultimately held on for the win. Following the game the team held a 15-minute, players-only meeting.  Since the Islanders game on December 1st, the Capitals are 17-2-4, have the greatest positive goal differential, and the best record in the NHL.

A Friendly Reminder From The Islanders
The Capitals would pick up their game ever since December 1st, but would need to regroup following back-to-back losses to last place teams in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps would lose to the last place Islanders 4-3 on December 27th. As a result, the Islanders climbed out of the Metro basement, dropping the New Jersey Devils to last place, coincidentally the Capitals next opponent. The Capitals would then lose to the Devils in a 2-1 shootout at Verizon Center, and doubt starting creeping back in. The Caps would then reel off nine consecutive wins against the best teams in the league, and doing so in eye-popping fashion.

The Numbers
We’ve identified a pragmatic transition point, but do the numbers back it up? When assessing the team numbers for the first 22 games and comparing to the past 23 games, the demarcation point is again realized.

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Goaltending
The goaltending numbers followed similar suit. Braden Holtby’s numbers are vastly improved, while Philipp Grubauer’s numbers fell-off a minor amount.

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League Comparison for Shots and Scoring – Last 23 Games
Since December 2nd, the Capitals lead the league in goals for with 87. A distant second is the Columbus Blue Jackets with 73 goals. The Capitals have also yielded the fewest goals since December 2nd, with 43. Second is the Blue Jackets with 47. Maybe most impressively, the Capitals are 10th in the league in total shot attempts for the same time period, and 15th in the league in shots against.

Players Stats – Last 23 Games (Goals)

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Player Stats – Last 23 Games (Points)

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New Years R(e)volition
A couple of things have become fairly clear in 2017. First, not only can the Capitals reach a level of play equaling last seasons peak performing times, but they can exceed it. By identifying the point in the season where the turnaround occurred, we can now take a look at some of the possible changes that were made to realize the tremendous improvement in play. We will do that in follow-up articles.

The one remaining question is whether or not they can find a way to align their highest level of play with the start of the playoffs.

By Jon Sorensen

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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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