Why Capitals' five-on-five play could prove decisive vs. the Panthers

·5 min read

Caps' five-on-five play could prove decisive vs. Panthers originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Through four games in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series the Capitals have not just controlled the special teams battle against the Florida Panthers, they have dominated it.

Washington is 29.4% on the power play (5-of-17) and a sparkling 100% (13-for-13) on the penalty kill. It’s an area that’s contributed largely to the Capitals winning two of the first four games against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

But how have the teams fared at full strength, when the game is five-on-five? If Washington is to win the series and move on to round two, it’s likely the series will come down to what it can do when no one is in the penalty box.

Here are a few numbers (all courtesy of Natural Stat Trick) to monitor as the series shifts to Florida for a pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday night:

40%:

The percentage of five-on-five goals this series scored by the Capitals. 

There have been 15 five-on-five goals scored this series and Washington has six of them.

Surprisingly, considering the Panthers’ advantage on the stat sheet in total, the series has largely been even when both teams are at full strength in terms of goals scored.

In Game 1, goals were 2-2. In Game 2, Florida outscored the Capitals 5-0, leading to the discrepancy — which isn’t to say that Game 2 should be thrown out, but that is so far is the clear outlier through 181 minutes of five-on-five play.

Washington answered to outscore the Panthers 3-1 in Game 3 before a 1-1 split in Game 4.

Florida was the best team in the sport during the regular season at creating five-on-five offense with 218 goals and a blistering 3.33 goals-per-60 minutes. Through four games, the Panthers are at 2.97 goals-per-60, which is seventh-best among the 16 playoff teams. So, to some extent, the Capitals have slowed the Panthers’ offense down.

102 and 77:

The number of shots the Capitals have allowed, and taken, at five-on-five.

This is the part of the exercise that doesn’t bode favorably for Washington. There are indeed favorable numbers to look at, but the Caps aren't generating a ton of quantity offensively.

Their 102 shots allowed are fifth-most amongst playoff teams and 77 shots-for are the third-worst in that same category.

The rate metrics aren’t any prettier, as the Panthers' 33.68 shots-per-60-minutes looks far better than Washington's mark of 25.42 — which is dead last amongst playoff teams.

Various Capitals players and coach Peter Laviolette have discussed the need to control the puck more in the final two or three games than they have in the first four, and that would go a long way to slowing a torrid Florida attack.

While Washington's numbers are better with the score within one goal (for either side), Games 2 and 4 have not been kind.

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53.56%

Capitals expected goals for percentage (with the game within a one goal difference). If you’re looking for a silver lining, study this section as if it holds the world’s secrets. 

Washington, despite being outdone in the quantity department, has generally not been beaten in the quality department. In fact, that’s what’s kept it in the series.

With the game within a single goal (for either team), the Caps own 53.56% of expected goals (a measure of how many goals a team can expect to score based upon quantity and shot location) in the series and have largely done what they’ve set out to do against the high-flying Panthers.

(The reason to add the disclaimer for "within one goal" is to essentially take out the Game 2 outlier, where the Capitals allowed a bevy of quality chances as the final 25 minutes turned into a freefall. Should you want that in the mix, Washington's percentage drops to 46.21%).

Still, in three of the four games during the series where the Caps have had more high-danger scoring chances than Florida, in two of those four they’ve had more scoring chances.

In short, Washington isn't settling for so-called “easy” shots, and is generally keeping the Panthers out of the danger areas. Meaning if the Capitals start allowing Florida to get in-tight chances near Ilya Samsonov's goal to end the series, they’re in a world of trouble.

96.7%

Ilya Samsonov’s five-on-five save percentage

The goalie has been the Capitals’ savior in a lot of ways. Game 3 could have gone far differently and Game 4 likely would have completely gone off the rails if it weren’t for his stellar play in net. All that despite not even starting in Game 1 with Vitek Vanecek getting the nod for the first two games.

Samsonov has got a save percentage of .967 at five-on-five, which is fifth-best amongst the 26 goalies that have played in the playoffs as of Tuesday evening. Of those five goalies, just three have played more than 100 minutes in the postseason.

During the regular season at five-on-five, he boasted a .904 save percentage at five-on-five. So his playoff performance has far outweighed his value during the regular season thus far.

In short, though, that bubble is likely to burst at some point — whether or not it happens against the Panthers remains to be seen. But just one goalie (Thomas Hodges of the Anaheim Ducks) had a save percentage better than .967 during the regular season. He faced just one five-on-five shot.

Still, Samsonov’s play in net has been exactly what the Capitals needed and even if and when his play drops in the final two or three games, they might have enough special teams strength (or, with a boost at five-on-five offense) to get them to the finish line and advance.

All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.