After flying through the first 26 days of March with a 10-2-0 record, the Capitals’ level of play and overall production has regressed significantly. Since March 28th, the Capitals have gone 4-4-0, giving up 30 goals against versus only 24 goals scored.
There has been a sharp decline in performance, and in this piece, we’re going to take a multi-faceted approach to examining the “why” behind the Capitals’ regression after such a strong month.
Weak Third Periods
Even on March 28th, where the Capitals were victorious over the New York Rangers, the Capitals nearly blew a four-goal lead after Kuznetsov scored 5:10 into the third frame. That game against the Rangers seemed to follow the mold for the Capitals’ season to date: building solid leads in the second period, and letting teams back into games in the third.
As of Saturday, the Capitals have scored 58 second period goals while allowing 38. It’s clear that the second period is where the Capitals shine, but the third periods have been a pit of despair.
The Capitals have been outscored 51-37 in the third period this season. 51 goals allowed in the third period is the third highest in the league, trailing only the Detroit Red Wings and the Arizona Coyotes.
Historically, the Capitals have had mixed results in the third period: (Click to enlarge).
Interestingly enough, the Capitals had a +21 goal differential in the third period last season. You might think it was because they had trailed after two periods and had to make up ground, but that’d be incorrect. The Capitals had 32 games in which they had the lead going into the third period, 28 when they were trailing, and nine when they were tied.
This season, the Caps are 20-2-0 when entering the third period with a lead, 2-7-0 when trailing, and 4-2-4 when tied. Due to the Capitals’ second period successes this season, they are more likely than not entering the third period with a lead. So why the drop off in goal differential?
While holding a lead this season, the Capitals have given up the fifth highest shot attempts against at 693, which puts them at the 16th ranked with a 45.65% Corsi For percentage. They fail to stifle more quality scoring chances, and put up the 25th ranked expected goals for percentage. They rank 23rd in scoring chances for percentage at 45.81%.
Since March 28th, the Capitals have given up the sixth most shot attempts while leading with 127, the 18th ranked Corsi For percentage at 44.78%, and the 23rd ranked expected goals for percentage at 43.48%. These indicators are important.
When a team controls possession and momentum, their shot attempts will rise. When a team is sitting back and “turtling”, the opposing team gets more chances in the offensive end because the leading team has taken their foot off of the gas pedal and sits back to be more responsible, defensively.
A foil for the Caps here are the Colorado Avalanche. They’re a top team in the NHL, talent wise, and when leading, they’re first in Corsi For percentage with 57.73%, own 59.06% of shots for percentage, 59.13% of expected goals for percentage, and 60.36% of scoring chances. This is the perfect indication that the most successful teams continue to push and generate chances even when they have the lead. It’s simple odds: if you give your opponents more ice time in your defensive zone, they’re more likely to score.
Shot Attempts and Expected Goals
Over the month of March, the Capitals found themselves rolling in terms of expected goals differential. It seemed like the team that had struggled to really find consistency in performance had reached a new peak, but the inconsistency returned.
Below is a graphic from MoneyPuck.com that shows their rolling five game average of expected goals differential over the season so far:
This graphic is indicative of the Capitals’ struggles since March 28th. Since this is a rolling five-game average, seeing a drop-off this considerable in such a short period of time is extremely concerning.
It’s also interesting to see the correlation that shot attempt differential has on expected goals differential:
There’s an obvious quantity versus quality debate with shot attempts. The difference is, if you’re dipping so low below the zero differential line, like the Capitals have the past couple of weeks, it starts to show a negative trend. Can you win if you’re out attempted in shots? Yes. Is it sustainable? Probably not.
Five on Five Production
The Capitals have been the most prolific team in scoring during five at five play, potting 99 goals this season. Has this scoring pace continued over the past eight games? The short answer is no.
Over the course of the season, the Capitals have scored at a rate of 2.99 goals per 60 minutes of play, which is second in the NHL (the Avalanche have played one fewer game, which makes their rate higher). Over this eight game stretch, that’s dropped to 2.45, ranked 16th in the NHL.
In terms of actual numbers, the Caps have 16 five-on-five goals in eight games, which surely isn’t woeful, but have given up 24 in the same stretch. Compare this to their performance prior to March 28th, where the Capitals outscored their opposition 83 to 58 during five-on-five play. That drop-off is concerning.
Let’s take a look at their performance metrics from prior to March 28th compared to after:
This ultimately speaks for itself. The Capitals are performing worse than expected, and even their expected goals for percentage is over 11% lower than prior to March 28th. The most concerning part about this is that the Capitals have had a healthy lineup during this eight-game stretch.
Overall, we’ve seen these types of slumps from the Capitals over the years. The concerning part is that the Capitals are dealing with a shortened runway of 15 games remaining to right the ship.
The good news is, the Caps are tied at the top of the division, and lead the fourth place Boston Bruins by 8 points, although the Bruins have three games in hand. The Caps are likely going to make the playoffs, but won’t get very far if this level of play continues.
By Justin Trudel