Why Are The Capitals Winless Against The Penguins?

Photo: AP

After Sunday’s disappointing 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals’ record versus their divisional rival worsened to 0-1-2. That being said, the interesting insight around this matchup is that the Capitals aren’t playing any worse than they do against other MassMutual East Division rivals.

Although the results aren’t panning out for the Capitals’ against the longtime division rival, there’s a lot to unpack from the three games they’ve played against Pittsburgh so far this season.

Five on Five Play

Five on five play is the most important area of play, since it’s typically the scenario that makes up the majority of the 60 minutes of a game, and has a more accurate reflection of a teams overall play.

Let’s take a look at how the Capitals have performed regarding goals for, goals against, expected goals for, and expected goals against over 60 minutes of play:

Interestingly enough, the Capitals ‘goals for’ and ‘goals against’ versus expectation over a 60 minute rate are better than their total rates against all opponents. The Capitals record more ‘goals for’ during 5 on 5 play over 60 minutes than they do against other opponents.

It’s a slight margin, but goals are inherently the most important stat. The Capitals also have slightly better ‘goals against’ over 60 minutes. Additionally, the Caps have a positive net expected ‘goals for’ vs ‘expected goals against’ when facing the Penguins, which is not the case when looking at the team’s performance against all opponents.

Now, let’s take a look at the Capitals’ possession metrics for shot generation and suppression, as well as high danger chances and high danger goals:

Here’s another area where the Capitals are outpacing their overall season stats. The Capitals are generating more high danger chances for as a percentage, as well as high danger goals against as a percentage.

The Capitals are generating a higher percentage of Corsi shot attempts against the Penguins than they are against all opponents so far this season. The Capitals are falling slightly behind their overall season performance in Fenwick shot attempt percentage. In cases where the Fenwick percentage lags behind Corsi, we can assume that the Penguins have been effective at blocking shot attempts on goal.

The bright side here is that the Capitals are generating high danger chances for, although they are giving up half of the share of high danger goals in tilts against the Penguins. That still outpaces the Caps’ overall performance in that metric so far this season.

Special Teams Performance

The Capitals are struggling to kill off penalties against the Penguins this season. The Capitals have given up three goals against while shorthanded in nine overall penalty kill scenarios. This may not sound like a lot, but we have to consider the circumstances.

Outside of the two empty net goals the Penguins scored yesterday, the Penguins scored a power play goal to quell the Capitals’ momentum after Jakub Vrana tied the game at 2-2  within the first four minutes of the second period. The Penguins then rode that momentum to another goal to extend their lead to 4-2, and they would not relinquish the lead from there.

Here’s a graphic to show the overall performance the Caps’ penalty kill has had versus the Penguins:

A 66.7% penalty kill effectiveness is not going to cut it against any team. On top of that, the Capitals have only allowed nine power play goals against, of which, the Penguins’ power play goals make up a third. Overall, we can start to see a trend where the Capitals’ five on five play has been strong, but the special teams lack of performance is the real difference maker.

Let’s take a look at the Caps’ power play performance versus the Penguins related to how their power play has performed all season:

The Capitals’ power play unit has been a juggernaut all season, posting a 35.5% effectiveness against all opponents this season. Compare that to the performance against the Penguins, they’ve only scored 2 power play goals while also giving up an egregious shorthanded goal while on a five on three power play. That makes the Capitals’ net power play effectiveness halved to 10%.

Compared to the Penguins’ power play percentage of 33.3%, the Capitals are struggling on the power play. In order to see why that differential is important, let’s take a look at the Capitals penalty breakdown below:

The Capitals have the second worst net penalty over 60 minutes rate in the NHL, meaning they take more penalties than they draw. This is not the case against the Penguins, where they have an even penalty differential. The fact that the Caps have a lower penalty minute per 60 games played rate against the Penguins with a significantly lower special teams effectiveness rate is concerning.

Goaltending Performance

The Capitals’ goaltending against the Penguins largely mirrors what we’ve seen all season long. The main point of drop off is in high danger save percentage. The concerning piece around goaltending for the Capitals is that they have the 27th ranked save percentage in the NHL during 5 on 5 play.

Vanecek has filled in admirably after most likely being on the taxi squad prior to Henrik Lundqvist missing the entire season due to a heart condition. The Capitals have missed Ilya Samsonov as well due to COVID-19 symptoms. The defensive play has impact here as well, so the blame doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the goaltenders. The Caps have plenty to clean up in their own end, but more timely saves and rebound control would go a long way.


The key to the Capitals’ lack of success in tilts against the Penguins so far this season is special teams effectiveness. The Capitals are performing well in five on five situations, but have come up short on special teams. Unfortunately for the Capitals, the Penguins’ special teams unit is rising to the occasion and it has resulted in the Penguins having a 3-0-0 record against the Capitals.

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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2 Responses to Why Are The Capitals Winless Against The Penguins?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great insight! I knew one the first two games was lost due to special teams, but I didn’t realize the issue was consistent with the Pens.

  2. Pingback: Tuesday Caps Clips: Capitals @ Penguins Game Day

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