After very underwhelming month of October, where the Washington Capitals finished the month with a 5-4-1 record, the team has battled their way back, steadily improving each month as the season has progressed. On the surface, this makes sense, as some of the new additions to the lineup got a bit more acclimated to Peter Laviolette’s system and injured players begin returning to the lineup. On the other hand, there are underlying reasons why this improvement has occurred.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the Capitals’ performance, month by month, and will extrapolate the “why” behind this improvement in high-danger chance percentage (HDCF%), high-danger goals for percentage (HDGF%), scoring chance for percentage (SCF%), and high-danger save percentage (HDSV%).
MONTH BY MONTH IMPROVEMENT
Let’s go ahead and dive right into the metrics: [Click to enlarge].
It makes sense why the Capitals struggled out to a 5-4-1 start with these rather unsatisfactory marks in those key categories. On top of that, the Capitals weren’t getting the goaltending they needed in those high-danger situations, with a .787 HDSV%.
ON THE RISE
We start seeing steady improvement in November, especially in the SCF% and HDCF% categories. The HDGF% is still trailing a bit behind SCF% and HDCF%, but that largely still follows the rationale of HDSV% only improving, marginally.
December is where the improvements really take hold. Not only are SCF% and HDCF% above the 50% watermark, but HDGF% spiked to 66.67%. That’s a pretty elite rate of high-danger goal conversion (and suppression).
We’ll get more into the reasons why this happened in a bit. The good news is, although there was a slight dip in HDSV% and HDGF%, the statistics have held steady thus far in January.
We can also see a correlated improvement in expected goals differential over this time frame:
Although we saw the improvement in November, the rolling differential didn’t really start to progress into plus territory until about halfway through December. A large portion of this is the increased performance in HDGF% and HDSV%.
Now, let’s get into the reasons why the Capitals have improved since October.
REASONS BEHIND THE IMPROVEMENT
Converting on high-danger chances and getting better goaltending
Interestingly enough, the Capitals’ HDCF% and SCF% have only progressed at an only slightly positive rate when looking at a rolling percentage over the course of the season:
Why is this important to call out? Well, it comes down to actually converting on high-danger chances and getting those big saves in high-danger chances allowed. The Capitals’ HDGF% has been trending upwards over the course of the season:
As the Capitals start converting on more HDCF and getting more saves in high-danger chance situations, the Caps’ HDGF% will grow, as we see in the chart above. We see a real positive trend forming here.
The Capitals went from a low point of having the fifth worst HDGF% to now sitting at 13th in the NHL. Prior to the woeful effort against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals sat at 10th.
Sonny Milano entering the lineup
With October being a woeful month for the Capitals, compounded by the cavalcade of injuries that ensued, the Capitals signed Sonny Milano to a league-minimum contract. Milano entered the lineup and has made a significant impact.
Milano leads the forward group in HDGF/60 for skaters that have played more than 400 minutes at five-on-five with 2.18. The next best performance in that area is Ovechkin with 1.93. Milano has also skated about 245 fewer minutes in five-on-five time on ice than Ovechkin.
Another plus for Milano is that he’s not generating an excess of HDGF by gambling away HDGA either. He’s third among Capitals skaters in HDGA/60 with 1.09. He’s responsibly generating high-danger goals without sacrificing defensive play. With Milano on the ice, 66.67% of high-danger goals scored are for the Capitals.
Much improved goaltending in high danger scenarios
The tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren didn’t have large swaths of sub-par play early in the season. It largely came down to situational pitfalls, especially in high-danger situations. As the season has progressed, the Capitals actually haven’t gotten remarkably better at suppressing high-danger chances against.
In fact, the Capitals gave up a season high of 134 HDCA in December, but the HDSV% improved remarkably to 87.95%. That’s good for sixth-best in the NHL in the month of December. In January, the Caps’ HDSV% of 84.29% ranks 13th. In October, they were 25th with 78.79%. In November, they sat at 24th.
That large jump in performance has a lot of impact on the Capitals’ improved play in December and most of January so far.
DOWN THE STRETCH
The Capitals’ improved play month over month is an indicator of more success throughout the rest of the season. The Capitals vastly improved HDSV% and HDGF% go hand-in-hand with actually converting on the high-danger chances they were struggling with burying in the first month and a half of the season. The Capitals ponied up the cash for a top ten caliber goaltender in Kuemper and a quality backup in Lindgren this past summer, and they’re starting to reap some of the rewards there.
Oh, and a player entering the lineup like Sonny Milano certainly helps. General Manager Brian MacLellan ought to be thinking about extending Milano, and fast. His value on the ice has been remarkable, and if he continues his play down the stretch of the 2022-23 season, his price tag will only increase.
By Justin Trudel