Last night’s game against the New Jersey Devils was a familiar tale for the Washington Capitals. The team turned in a solid performance in the first two periods and then proceeded to let a three-goal lead evaporate in the final frame. Fortunately, in the end, Jakub Vrana would salvage a win for the Capitals in overtime.
Head coach Peter Laviolette was asked about the team’s performance in the third period during his postgame media availability last night. He simply felt the team took their foot off of the gas.
“We just stopped playing. We went out in the third period and didn’t play with the same zip that we needed to, that we played with for two periods. It was just a lot of errors to be honest with you. From mishandling pucks to not executing with pucks, to penalties, to line changes…just a bunch of things. Some bad defense tied in there as well. We had our foot on the gas for two periods and then we took it off. And they’ve got a young, skilled, quick team, they can possess the puck and make plays and you saw that in the third period.”
As a result of the team’s play in the early part of the third period, the second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Daniel Sprong was benched, ultimately getting just three shifts for the entire period. There was also some postgame speculation that the line was benched because of a poor line change that led to one of the Devils three third period tallies. Regardless of the reason, the second line sat as the team took a defensive posture.
Laviolette spoke about the reduction in ice time for the second line in his postgame media availability.
“Sometimes I’ll drop down to three lines. At that point I’m trying to make sure we play good defense and do the right things. There were some things that happened. I made a decision,” said Laviolette. “At the end of the day I’m trying to secure the point before we go for the second point.”
If we take a look at a few of the key metrics from last night’s game, we can begin to develop a better understanding of what transpired in the third period.
A CLOSER LOOK
The following graph plots the time on ice (TOI) for each of the Capitals forwards at even strength (5v5) and for all situations (power play, penalty kill) during last night’s game. (Click to enlarge)
As you can clearly see, the second line’s time was greatly reduced.
It should also be noted that the second line’s reduction in TOI actually began in the first period, with Vrana getting 4:11, Kuznetsov getting 4:39 and Sprong getting 4:57 of ice time in the first frame. However, a good part of that was somewhat related to the three penalties called in the first frame.
But let’s dig a little deeper.
EXPECTED GOALS / SCORING CHANCES
The following graph plots the ‘expected goals for’ percentages and ‘scoring chances for’ percentages for each of the Capitals forwards in last night’s game. (Click to enlarge)
As you can see, It shows that the second line posted the best advanced metrics among all Capitals forwards. The second line of Vrana, Kuznetsov and Sprong also scored three of the Capitals five goals, including the game winner. A pretty good offensive game for the second line.
So why bench a line that has the best offensive numbers, and gives you the best chance at adding to your score? As Laviolette stated, defense was the top priority, rather than rolling four lines and trying to add to the score. A philosophical fork in the road for some, but not for Laviolette.
Laviolette was clear that he wanted to take a defensive approach, secure the one point, then fight for the second point in overtime. Some might say that’s a cautious approach. But in the end, it worked.
If we dig even deeper, we can see that his strategic decision in the third period aligns with how he perceives his players on his team, and who he believes can and can’t be relied upon for defense.
OFFENSIVE ZONE SHIFT STARTS
The graph below adds offensive zone shift start percentages to the offensive metrics from above. (Click to enlarge)
As you can see from the graph above, the second line played protected minutes, with 100% of their zone starts occurring in the offensive zone. This is a reflection of Laviolette’s lack of defensive confidence in the second line. Whether you believe in his perception of each player or not, he stuck to his guns in the third period.
The bottom line, Laviolette made the right call in the third period, accordring to his personal philosophy of preferring to take a defensive stance, and only playing players he had defensive confidence in.
We can debate whether it’s better to continue attacking or take a defensive stance in a situation such as the third period in last night’s game. But the bottom line, the Capitals took home the two points.
By Jon Sorensen