Since the beginning of March, the Washington Capitals‘ level of play and overall success has taken a step up, posting a 15-5-2 record down the stretch. Prior to this improved stretch run, it appeared that the Capitals were destined for the second wild card spot in the East, and a daunting first round matchup with the Florida Panthers.
Now, the Capitals have pushed into a dead heat with the hated Pittsburgh Penguins for the final divisional playoff spot, and a ticket to open the NHL playoffs in Madison Square Garden. In this post, we’ll take a look at the underlying trends behind the Capitals’ surge in the standings.
If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our analytics glossary. The statistics and graphics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, Money Puck, and HockeyViz.
Finally Getting Healthy
We can trace a contributor to this success based on not just adjustments, higher levels of effort, or pure luck, but also the lineup returning to relative health. March 3rd was the first time all season when all six top-six forwards (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Anthony Mantha, Nicklas Backstrom, and TJ Oshie) were in the lineup together.
Prior to March 3, the Capitals had wildly varying outputs without any semblance of lineup stability throughout the season, and the results were meager at best. Here’s the rolling five-game average of expected goals differential over the course of the season: [Click to enlarge].
On November 4th, Mantha suffered a serious shoulder injury that required surgery to treat his ailment. After Mantha left the lineup, you can see the expected goals differential started to tank within a few games, then started to rebound in the first half of December. Backstrom returned at the peak of the rolling five game average, and then started to taper down to the zero differential mark.
Following that, Oshie left the lineup, and the team was relatively idling in expected goal differential. When Oshie and Mantha were finally back in the lineup for a fully healthy top six forward group, the results initially faltered, then started trending up. Here’s a ten game rolling average in the same metric, expected goals differential:
The semblance of the same trend starts to poke out a bit more here. Mantha’s injury, leading to the Caps having effectively half of a top six group, resulted in a considerable downward trend in expected goals differential.
We see the return to form through December with Backstrom’s return in the middle of the month, and then regression to the negative end of the differential. The 10-game rolling average starts to show the upward trend not long after Mantha’s return, and the subsequent reunion of the Caps’ top six forward group.
Not only can we see this trend in expected goals differential, but in overall expected goals as a part of a rolling 10-game average during five-on-five play:
It’s the same story as previously mentioned. Post November 4th, there’s a drop-off in expected goals percentage, a climb in mid-December, and then a positive trend in early March. Expected goals percentage tells the story, and so does Corsi percentage:
All in all, it’s pretty straightforward to expect to perform better when the team’s best players return to the lineup together. The Capitals are starting to see the benefit of getting back to relative health in time for the stretch run leading into the playoffs.
If there’s anything else to glean from the data here, it’s that the Capitals are clearly a worse team when Mantha isn’t in uniform. The Capitals started to find their stride when Mantha came back to the lineup. Since his return from injury, Mantha is tied with Kuznetsov for the lead on the team in total points during five-on-five play with 13 points.
Here’s two graphics from HockeyViz showing the Capitals’ five-on-five offense with and without Mantha:
The Capitals generate a greater excess of shots from the low slot, the mid slot, and the high slot when Mantha is on the ice. These are typically the highest danger areas on the ice for shot attempts, since there’s more of an angle for a shooter to score. With more shot attempts close in, the higher the chance you’ll score. The Caps generate a higher rate of expected goals for while Mantha is on the ice versus when he’s off the ice.
Health and a low incidence of injuries are going to be really important for the Capitals leading down the stretch run to the playoffs. The Capitals, with their top-six forwards intact, can score with pretty much any team in the league. The rest is reliant upon the performance of the goaltenders and defensemen on the ice with them, pulling the same rope.
The question is, with a veteran laden team, can this core group stay healthy through the grind of a playoff chase?
By Justin Trudel