I don’t believe what I’m seeing. This is not how D.C. is supposed to work. We’re not supposed to feel this much joy in this city. If anything, this Conference Finals series shouldn’t come close to being this easy for the Capitals. I really don’t know how to feel feelings anymore. If you’re looking for a statement of how much everything is going the Caps way, look no further than Tom Wilson’s goal to start Game 2.
I wasn’t even ready to watch the game before that puck went in the back of the net. I don’t think the person operating the camera was either.
It has been nothing but a fairy tale for the Capitals. Yes, Washington has still only made the Stanley Cup Final only once…Penguins fans…[shutter]. And if this city keeps doing what it does best, maybe the Caps will be the third team in NHL history to blow a 2-0 lead in the Conference Finals. But at the end of the day, this is the second greatest season this franchise has ever had. They have surpassed the 1990 team that got swept by Ray Bourque’s Bruins and are a few wins away from tying the 1998 team that got swept by Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings.
And they are doing this by simply wiping the floor with the Lightning. This isn’t just Braden Holtby standing on his head and second-half Andrei Vasilevskiy showing up, even though it mostly is the case. The trio of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman are all under 40% puck possession for the series. I repeat, Tampa’s three best defenseman are all under 40% puck possession!!! Did I mention that all three of them are worse than Dan Girardi for the series?!?! Or how about that Mikhail Sergachev is still not getting enough ice time despite looking amateur on plays like this 2-on-1 break-up attempt. Or how about Washington scoring just before a period ends on the power play for the second straight game?
Everything that could go right for this Caps team is going right. But the stats also show that Washington has earned every bit of their combined 10-4 score line. Just as Tampa prevented Boston from scoring a single even strength goal in their second round series with Boston, now its their turn to be staring at a goose egg offensively in this Conference Finals matchup. Overall, Washington owns 57.7% of the score-adjusted puck possession this series. You almost don’t need analytics to know just how dominant this Caps team has been.
To put the coup de gras, the Capitals aren’t just making the postseason out of just dumb luck, like say, last year’s Ottawa Senators, this postseason. Instead, they are generating 52.1% puck possession against Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa. Respectively, those are the 10th, 7th and 6th best puck possession teams in the league according to Natural Stat Trick that Washington is outperforming. In general, owning the majority of the shot attempts throughout the course of the regular season has been among the most consistent indicators for who will contend the most for the Stanley Cup in comparison to looking at the standings. Over time, score-effects and shot quality (a.k.a. expected goals) have become better indicators for future success, but how teams perform with the puck on their stick instead of without it has changed the thinking of how to best strategize in hockey.
However, there will always be cases in which anomalies do happen. The saying “having a hot goaltender” still rings true for out-of-nowhere playoff teams that make a deep run. This season is no different with Holtby, Marc Andre-Fleury and Connor Hellebuyck leading the charge. However, Fleury, Hellebuyck and even Vasilevskiy are supported by great even strength play with the skaters in front of them.
For The Caps, however, they sat at 48.3% puck possession all regular season. They were consistently within the bottom third of the entire NHL and if it wasn’t for the consistent over-performance of their shooting talent and Philipp Grubauer’s heroics in March, Washington would probably have been more like an 85-point team instead of a 105-point club.
Which leads to this question. No matter what happens this postseason, does Washington have what it takes to come back to the postseason and be able to make a run like this again?
Welp, of the 44 teams to make it to the Conference Finals or better since shot attempt data has been recorded (2007-08 season), eight of them have done so while delivering less than 50% puck possession during the entire regular season. Here are all the details regarding each of them.
So as you can see, almost every team from this list were not only poor puck possession teams in the regular season, but that fact didn’t change one bit during the playoffs. However, everyone of these teams except those 2017 Ottawa Senators went on to improve in their puck possession the following season. That being said, not only did those gosh-darn 2009 Penguins make it back to the conference finals or better, but they were the only team to replace their coach the following season and go on to win the Stanley Cup.
As for everyone else, two teams made it up to the second round, two made it to the first and the rest didn’t make it back to the postseason the following year. I would argue that plenty of that has to be due to the quality in goaltenders that were at their disposal. To Philadelphia’s credit, Martin Biron was quite a solid netminder during his hey day, but he was surpassing the hypothesized 350-game threshold during his NHL career and wouldn’t be the same player ever since he left Broad Street. And with all due respect to Craig Anderson and Mike Smith, these two have rarely had the year-to-year consistency to be considered among the best in their generation. The counter to anyone that thinks Marc-Andre Fleury should be put in the Anderson/Smith pool is that young-“Flower” was at the peak of his powers at the time of Pittsburgh’s two-year stretch.
Which leads us back to the Caps. As you can see, they are the only Conference Finalists since 2007-08 to generate over 50% puck possession after not doing so in the regular season. Along with that, they have Barry Trotz still around, and Braden Holtby under contract for the next two seasons. That being said, Holtby should play over 400 career regular season games by the time his 20s are over. The Caps have gotten the most out of his mileage, but with Ilya Samsanov finally under contract and in the organization, is this the beginning of some end to his Washington career? Way for me to spew a hot take, but these are questions front office people should be asking every second.
Also, are we sure Trotz is staying after the final year of his current contract? I got to imagine that with all the pressure and never-ending criticism towards him that he would prefer to take his ball and go home. You would like to think that in his 19 years of NHL head coaching that he would prefer to call it a day, but Randy Carlyle and Bruce Boudreau are still putting in shifts while in their early 60s. Barry Trotz is 55. The world is his oyster if he wants to leave, but would he also want to leave something where he finally built something positive in both the regular season or postseason. The choice is entirely up to him.
Either way, he is finally playing the likes of Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana in leading positions for the club after I have constantly implored Trotz to play the young players more years ago, let alone months ago. Lastly, Michal Kempny has been the best trade deadline acquisition the Capitals have ever had since Sergei Federov. That sounds like those two men have no business being in the same sentence, but it goes to show how dark it has been for this franchise to get such an impact player mid-season. In fact, you have to go back and find Dennis Wideman as the last Caps player to get acquired at the trade deadline and make any long-lasting impact on the team. Almost everyone else was either a net-neutral or a net-negative (how’s it going Martin Erat?).
So at minimum, this Caps team is quite different from last year’s Senators team. If for anything else, Ted Leonsis is not Eugene Melnyk.