A little while back I had someone ask me a mailbag question about how the Maple Leafs would find an innovative way to lose their series to the Bruins and simultaneously break fans’ hearts.
The morbid beatdown the Bruins administered in Games 1 and 2 is a kind of heartbreaking that comes at you early and leaves you demoralized, but I don’t think it’s quite what the question-asker had in mind.
What’s happening to the Capitals very much is.
In Game 1, the Caps went up 2-0, blew that lead, went ahead again early in the third period, blew that lead on a bad penalty, and lost early in overtime on a what-can-you-do goal from a star talent.
In Game 2, they went up 2-0 and then 3-1, blew that lead, scored a late game-tying goal, then lost midway through the first overtime period on a bang-bang play.
That’s two home games in which the Caps either held a third-period lead or scored a late equalizer to give the fans hope, only to snatch it away in overtime in consecutive games. This is, however, nothing all that new. In the Barry Trotz era, the Caps are 6-9 in overtimes, which is a lot of overtimes to play in six-plus rounds over four seasons. And fully half of those wins came in last year’s seven-game series against the Leafs, during which five of the six games went to OT.
After blowing home ice and heading to Columbus for Tuesday’s Game 3, the Caps’ problems beyond making their fans type “I want to die” into various social media text as a sort of rite of spring are coming into clearer focus. It is, in fact, the same old tune played by the same old band.
To look at the Caps’ underlying numbers, you understand that they are great. Basically every non-goal 5-on-5 percentage is between 53 and 55, despite trailing for just 12 minutes in this series so far (and by the way, they’re 0-2 despite trailing for 12 minutes). But also, they’ve only scored two goals at full strength to the Blue Jackets’ five, all from at least middle-danger parts of the ice.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Caps don’t seem to be able to convert even the large amount of high-danger scoring chances they generate into actual goals on the scoreboard. They’ve taken 22 shot attempts from in close to the goaltender, and allowed just eight. The conversion rates there? A stunning 37.5 percent from the Jets (three goals on eight attempts) versus a not-so-stunning-if-you-watch-them-in-any-playoffs 0 percent for the Caps (zero on 22).
Yup, the Caps are shooting like garbage again, and especially at 5-on-5, and that seems to be the case for what looks like the 50th year in a row in the Alex Ovechkin Era. That’s not to put it on Ovechkin himself — he has two goals in as many games, and 17 total on 186 shots in 41 games over the last four postseasons, both of which are perfectly good numbers if erring a little on the unlucky side. If he were shooting at his career average, he would have like four extra goals over 41 games, and I’m not really that interested in splitting hairs any further than that, because it’s not really Ovechkin’s fault the Capitals once again aren’t scoring.
Let’s put it this way: With Ovechkin on the ice over the last four postseasons, the Capitals have shot a fairly low 8.6 percent across all situations (that number is about 11.7 percent in the regular season). However, it’s his teammates who aren’t carrying the water here, because when Ovechkin is on the bench in the playoffs, over 41 playoff games, the Caps have shot just 6.4 percent.
Now let’s put it another way: Ovechkin shoots roughly the league average in the playoffs under Trotz, meaning opposing goalies have a .914 save percentage against him. That means he’s basically facing Martin Jones every shift. But for his teammates to be shooting just 6.4 percent means they’re basically facing Cup-year Tim Thomas every shift, and I gotta tell ya: No goaltender they’ve faced (with the possible exception of Henrik Lundqvist if he’s truly on one) is that good.
But this all leads to the question of “Why is that a thing?” Because to so consistently shoot below-average as a team is kind of difficult to do if you’re a high-level NHL team, which the Caps consistently have been under Trotz. In fact, no team in the NHL is even close to having as many points as Washingtons’ 444 over the past four regular seasons.
I have some theories about this that I can’t really prove — much like the theory of evolution!!!!! — but I’ll present them to you anyway:
I think teams are always going to be less successful shooting the puck in the playoffs because playoff teams typically have good goalies. Over the past four postseasons, the Caps have faced a solid slate of competition, but nothing to the extent that you’d expect them to look horrible offensively. Maybe the Caps are an extremely outlier in this theory but it only makes sense that if you play elite teams you’re not going to score on as many shots, because elite teams are also pretty likely to do a good job of keeping you to the outside. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the Caps have lost to the Pens in the second round two years in a row.
The Capitals frankly don’t have a lot of scoring depth, nor have they ever, really. Ovechkin’s underlyings are always outstanding in the playoffs with Trotz behind the bench. The rest of the team is always a little under 50 percent when he’s off. I mean the clearest argument here is the team feels Tom Wilson is his best option as a right wing for these playoffs, with Evgeny Kuznetsov in the middle. That leaves Nick Backstrom and T.J. Oshie as the team’s only two real scoring threats. No one else on the team finished north of 40 points this season, and you can say what you like about the Blue Jackets, but they at least have guys who can go punch-for-punch with that kind of low-level offensive output. Columbus has more than five decent-to-great forwards.
It’s possible that good teams can shut Ovechkin down in the playoffs because for as much talk as there is of “The Ovechkin spot” and stuff like that, unless you put the Caps on the power play, he doesn’t really get there in the postseason. Under Trotz, eight of Ovechkin’s 17 goals have been on the power play (47 percent). In the regular season, that number is closer to 42 percent. That, too, isn’t to put anything on Ovechkin but good teams are able to shut good players down.
If you’re Ovechkin and you’re on the ice for 49 of your team’s 95 playoff goals over a four-year span, maybe you feel like “Well I have to do everything myself because none of these bums are picking up the slack for me at all.” The Caps have scored 46 goals in almost 1,735 minutes with Ovechkin off the ice over four years, and 49 in more than 844 when he’s off. He’s scoring at more than twice the rate they are, and everyone’s sitting around saying “This is an Ovechkin problem?” Come on, man.
In what way is this unlike the Oilers being total crap this year with McDavid off the ice or the Devils with Hall or the Avalanche with MacKinnon? Teams know they don’t have to shut down the freakin’ Jay Beagle line, so they can devote all their attention to shutting down Ovechkin instead. They don’t do a particularly good job of it, but the rest of the team is still so bad that it truly does not matter. It’s about 1.6 goals per 60 minutes of non-Ovechkin hockey. Who cares.
This isn’t an issue the Capitals can fix in this series, really, because Ovechkin is way past 30 and you can’t just say to him, “Go play 30 minutes a night and we’ll see what happens.” They might be able to draw a bunch of penalties out of Columbus (it’s worked so far!) to put Ovechkin in more positions to score, but if they don’t stop taking a bunch of them they’re going to end up zeroing-out the benefit.
This team only lives on narrow margins because it hasn’t been able to put together any depth that can match up with actual elite teams in years. So when they have another, ahem, “disappointing” postseason, at what point do we just not get to act surprised anymore?
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.