A Tale of Two Teams: The Capitals’ Drastic Regression Started Earlier Than One Might Think

1205412376_slidePatrick Smith/Getty Images

For the past seven games, since they returned from the NHL All-Star bye week, the Capitals have struggled to rekindle the momentum the team had earlier in the season, going 3-4-0 since coming off the week-long break. However, when one delves into the finer details of the Caps’ numbers, the team’s performance issues go back further than just seven games.

To understand this, one has to rewind the clock for the 2019-20 season, setting it back to December 1, 2019. At that time, the Capitals were 19-4-5, second in the NHL in points percentage, trailing only the Boston Bruins, who had one game in hand. Following December 1, the Capitals have played in 28 more contests (perfect symmetry), and have gone 17-11-0, with a points percentage of .607, or ninth in the NHL.

The Capitals’ issues started to really compound just before the All-Star Break. The team needed a furious come-from-behind victory against the New York Islanders to enter the All-Star Break on a winning note, and since that game against the Islanders, the Caps have gone the previously-mentioned 3-4-0, with the 27th overall points percentage in the NHL. Historically (and anecdotally), the Capitals have always struggled with extended time off, and typically right the proverbial ship again in time to make the playoffs. Despite the streak of less-than stellar play, the Caps still remain at the top of the Metropolitan Division, and are still considered one of the better teams in hockey.

In this piece, NoVa Caps takes a look at the two distinct halves of play so far this season, and tries to explain some issues that are plaguing the Caps more recently, as well as identifying trends that may have predicted this occurring later in the season. The good news for Head Coach Todd Reirden’s team is that the issues are happening now, and not in April when their play begins to matter most. (All stats via Natural StatTrick)


One of the more interesting statistics that shows the real difference in outcomes for the Capitals is the time on ice in which the team is either trailing, tied, or leading in a game:

  • From 10/2/19 to 12/1/19:
    • 1319:25 in total time on ice at 5-on-5 play
      • 534:19 of total time on ice at 5-on-5 play while leading
      • 475:38 of total time on ice at 5-on-5 play while the score is tied
      • 310:28 of total time on ice at 5-on-5 play while trailing
  • From 12/2/19 to 2/12/19:
    • 1265:02 in total time on ice at 5 on 5 play
      • 417:18 of total time on ice at 5-on-5 play while leading
      • 370:50 of total time on ice at 5-on-5 play while the score is tied
      • 478:54 of total time on ice at 5-on-5 play while trailing

The biggest difference here? Through the Caps’ first 28 games played, over 1,008 minutes played at 5-on-5 were with the score tied, or with the team leading. Over their most recent 28 games played, that’s only 788:08 in time on ice while either leading or with the score tied at 5-on-5 play.

Realistically, a lot of the metrics are pretty close to the same as they are today, when taking into account possession metrics. The main difference is that in games that have a score within one goal, the Capitals are considerably worse in Expected Goals For, and marginally better in Expected Goals Against. The issue lies within the fact that the actual Goals For/Goals Against vary from those expected figures.

Typically, teams that out-produce their Expected Goals For figures, and stifle actual Goals Against relative to their expected figures, end up doing much better in the standings. There’s a clear short term causation there, while Long-term, there’s some regression to the mean. There’s a case to be made that the Capitals are regressing to the mean in this regard.

Let’s take a look at the stats for the Capitals during one-goal games at 5-on 5-play, broken down by the same date ranges as above:

  • From 10/2 to 12/1:
    • 997:56 of time on ice with scores within one goal
    • 52.10% Corsi For Percentage
    • 52.32% Fenwick For Percentage
    • 45 actual Goals For compared to 41.43 expected Goals For
    • 36 actual Goals Against compared to 36.34 expected Goals Against
  • From 12/2 to 2/12:
    • 857:51 of time on ice with scores within one goal
    • 52.81% Corsi For Percentage
    • 52.15% Fenwick For Percentage
    • 44 actual Goals For compared to 34.98 expected Goals For
    • 42 actual Goals Against compared to 35.53 expected Goals Against

What do these numbers mean?

  1. From 10/2 to 12/1, the Capitals out-paced their expected Goals For figure and just suppressed enough actual Goals Against to come out ahead of the expected figure. This is typical of the Caps, since they rely on their offense to win games.
  2. From 12/2 to 2/12, the Caps continued to out-pace their expected Goals For figures, but they’re considerably worse on the actual Goals Against versus expected Goals Against. This is due to a few reasons, namely:
    1. Goals scored from low danger areas, but with lots of traffic in front.
    2. “Soft” goals being scored, i.e. bad goaltending
    3. Giving up Grade-A high danger chances
  3. The Corsi and Fenwick numbers are marginally lower from 10/2 to 12/1 because the Capitals were most likely leading in more of those games than they were from 12/2 to 2/12. This is indicative of the record, but the statistical causation is that teams who are trailing typically are more desperate to score to tie the game.

We can see the differences for the Capitals recently with these two graphics from Charting Hockey:

reality vs expectation gf

xgf-60 vs xga-60

Ultimately, the Caps are worse off in one-goal game scenarios at 5-on-5, especially defensively. There’s certainly something off in the execution and the defensive system. There’s too many goals that are due to transitions from turnovers in the offensive zone, and forwards not getting back on defense against the rush. Realistically, these are all coachable changes. There may be a personnel issue, and that’s General Manager Brian MacLellan’s responsibility to mitigate. MacLellan has acquired a defenseman at every trade deadline since he took over as General Manager in 2014. MacLellan has not waffled at trying to take this team over the top in the past, and there’s no reason to expect that to change for the worse. Long story short, there’s no point in panicking. The Capitals will eventually right the ship, but there’s definitely concerns that need resolution before this team re-cements itself as a true Cup Contender.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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6 Responses to A Tale of Two Teams: The Capitals’ Drastic Regression Started Earlier Than One Might Think

  1. Anonymous says:

    “There’s certainly something off in the execution and the defensive system. There’s too many goals that are due to transitions from turnovers in the offensive zone, and forwards not getting back on defense against the rush.” – agree completely.

  2. Diane Doyle says:

    December was when the power play became moribund.

  3. ty wy says:

    Need a new coach. Unfortunately Leonis will as usual wait too late.

  4. Day One Caps Fan says:

    Excellent analysis J Trudel

    Caps franchise is practicing that time-honored corporate technique called “Denial.”

    They will pay dearly. So will the fans!

  5. Diane Doyle says:

    On the team’s regression, I can’t help thinking of two teams in the Central Division who were really good in 2017-18, the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets. The former won the President’s Trophy for that season. This was one year after a decimated version of the team made the Stanley Cup Finals. The Jets made it to Round 3 but lost to Vegas. Both got off to great starts in 2018-19 but neither played all that well during the second half of last season. The St Louis Blues came close to passing both up during the regular season and tied Winnipeg in points and was a point behind Nashville. Both WInnipeg and Nashville were ousted in Round 1 of the playoffs. Neither is in playoff position at the moment, but Winnipeg is just one point out.

  6. Diane Doyle says:

    Now it seems the Caps may be repeating the story of the San Francisco Giants of 2016. Giants were off to awesome start and had opened a big lead in the NL West. But they fell hard the second half and barely made the playoffs. They won the play-in game but lost the NLDS to the Chicago Cubs. The 2017 Giants continued where they left off during the second half of 2016. They ended in in last place. They have not sniffed contention since and are mired in the cellar right now.

    Baltimore Orioles are another similar example when they fell in 2017 after a pretty good start. They weren’t as high but got lower. And remained bad even since.

    If the Caps are truly following in the footsteps of the Giants, yikes!

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