34 games into the 2019-20 NHL season, the Washington Capitals stand alone at the top of the NHL standings, compiling a 24-5-5 record. This year’s edition of the Capitals are impressive so far, boasting the league’s best offense in total ‘goals for’, and second in the NHL in ‘goals for’ per game. On top of that, the Caps are playing more staunchly on defense, improving from 3.09 goals against per game to a mark of 2.79 goals against per game this season, good for 11th in the NHL.
It’s simple to look at the surface level statistics and see that the Capitals are a better team this season. Let’s take a deeper look at some underlying metrics to explain why the Caps are a better team this season, with largely the same team returning from last season.
High Danger Chances
The Capitals were the worst team in the NHL last season when it came to allowing high danger chances against. Overall, the Caps were 31st in the NHL for high danger chances against last season, with a total of 848 chances against. Opposing teams converted on 12.02% of those chances, resulting in 102 goals against at even strength.
To put that into perspective, the Caps gave up 161 total goals at 5 on 5 play. This means that 63.35% of the goals that the Caps allowed at even strength were a result of a high danger chance against.
This proved to be a debilitating weakness for the Caps in their seven game series against the Carolina Hurricanes, where the Caps gave up 70 high danger chances against. Carolina was able to score 13 of their 16 goals scored at 5 on 5 play in high danger chance situations.
So far this season, the Caps have actually given up more high danger chances against than they did through 34 games last season, racking up 367 high danger chances against compared to 331 last season. The difference here is that the Caps have generated far more high danger chances for than they did last season. So far, the Caps have generated 393 high danger chances for, compared to 261 last season. We can attribute the increase in high danger chances for and against this season to a systems change on the ice. High danger chances for are likely increasing due to four lines being able to generate scoring chances, as well as defensemen more willing to pinch in the offensive zone or joining the rush. While being more aggressive in attempting to generate offensive scoring chances, there’s always the gamble of giving up more scoring chances against.
Another contributing factor to the Caps’ increase in high danger chances against at 5 on 5 play is that high danger chances are higher across the league. The NHL average for high danger chances for/against this season is 358.42 compared to 307.58 last season. Given the difference in overall high danger chances across the NHL from last year to this year, the Caps are much closer to the league average rate than they were last season.
Let’s take a look at some further comparisons below:
So the key here is, while the Caps are doing better compared to league average regarding high danger chances against, the real difference is the fact that the Caps are generating much more high danger chances for, as well as high danger goals for. In fact, the Caps were 30th in the NHL last season in generating high danger chances for, but this season is 7th overall.
It’s no secret that the penalty kill was a huge Achilles heel for the Caps last season, leading to Brian MacLellan making a few roster moves this past off-season to bolster that group. Through 34 games last season, the Caps had the 27th ranked penalty kill unit with a 76% effectiveness rate. So far this season, the Caps have the 5th best penalty kill, racking up an 85.1% effectiveness rate.
One of the most apparent differences in the penalty kill from this year to last year is the save percentage. The Caps have the 9th best save percentage at 88.89% compared to a save percentage of 80.89% last season. This is a huge difference, and to put it in perspective, if the Caps had the same save percentage as last season for this season on the penalty kill, the Caps would have given up 13 more goals while at the man disadvantage. Overall, the Caps have given up 12 fewer goals while shorthanded than they did through 34 games last season.
According to the eye test, the additions of Gudas, Hagelin, and Hathaway, as well as the deployment of Siegenthaler on the penalty kill have really paid dividends to greater success with the man disadvantage this season. Siegenthaler has really found a niche on the penalty kill, leading all Caps’ skaters in time on ice while shorthanded. He’s also tied with Gudas for most shots blocked on the team while shorthanded with 16, seven more than third place.
High danger chances against are also a concern while on the penalty kill. Last season, the Caps gave up 77 high danger chances against through 34 games, resulting in 16 goals against while shorthanded. So far this season, the Caps have only given up 50 high danger chances against, resulting in 7 goals. Additionally, the Caps are getting much better goaltending in those types of situations than through 34 games last season, chalking up an 82.05% save percentage compared to 69.81% last season.
By Justin Trudel