The Washington Capitals and the Second Round Curse

“All around me are familiar faces.
Worn out faces, worn out places.”

These are two lines of Tears for Fears’s “Mad World” that the Washington Capitals, their management and their fans hear every year. Some times, life isn’t fair. For Alex Ovechkin and the team he captains, that time of year happens every point in time around the end of April, early May. Some would say they’re cursed, others would call them chokers. For the team and its faithful, it’s just another year of heart-break.

When Brian MacLellan was named the newest general manager of the team, just two seasons ago, changes were coming. He stepped in after the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, and put an end to the carousel of bench bosses which included Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates. MacLellan had his man; Barry Trotz. Coach of the Nashville Predators for fifteen seasons, Trotz would bring in a wave of defensive-strategy to a team that had grown attached to fire-wagon hockey. The days of “Score 5? We’ll score 6!” were over, and the Capitals were a new team.

For the most part, they were. The new defensive structure, which was humorously titled “SS Holtby,” led to the team posting their lowest goals against total since 2010-11 season, the last full campaign in the Bruce Boudreau era, in just Trotz’s second behind the Capitals bench. The team also managed their highest goals for total since the ridiculous 2009-10, when they scored 318 goals and the defensive duo of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz finished with a combined +89.

The 2015-16 Washington Capitals were a sight to watch. T.J. Oshie was a phenomenal addition to the team’s top-six and Justin Williams‘ playoff expertise was sure to come in handy. Plus, it didn’t hurt to have #8 lighting it up from his usual spot on the power play, efficient playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, emerging superstar Evgeny Kuznetsov, the reliable Marcus Johansson up front along with a very deep defense. John Carlson led all Eastern Conference defensemen with five goals and 12 points up until the Caps were eliminated, Karl Alzner ate up 21 minutes per night, Matt Niskanen was a regular fixture on the power play (16P), Brooks Orpik provided experience from past playoff grinds, and Dimitry Orlov scored eight goals and was quite productive earning a spot. These in addition to many more of the Caps personnel were key and fit right into Trotz’s gameplan every night.

So what happened to them? How could a team that set their franchise record for wins in a season with 56 suffer the same fate as their past incarnations, under different regimes?

The Washington Capitals and the Second-Round Curse

The usual suspects showed up, as Ovechkin put up 12 points in 12 games, as did Carlson. Backstrom wasn’t too far behind with 11 (2 goals, 9 assists), and T.J. Oshie had 10, while leading the team in goals (6 goals, 4 assists). Even names like Williams and Johansson contributed with 7 points apiece. However, the team scored 44.8% of their goals on the man advantage. They led all teams in the post-season in power-play reliance, while the Pittsburgh Penguins currently sit in 5th after two rounds, scoring 29.7% of their goals on the power-play. Luck also played a part in the teams’ success, as Penguins had a slightly-better looking PDO% (Team Save % + Team Shooting %) of 103.20% compared to the Capitals 101.69%.

One of the biggest struggles was from the solo performance of Kuznetsov. After scoring 77 points in 82 games during the regular season, the skilled Russian center managed to put up just two points (1 goal) in the post-season, which both came on the power-play.

Then there’s the goaltending duel between Holtby and the Penguins’ sensational story in Matt Murray. Before the post-season began, Holtby would lead in a poll of who could win a series between the two. The playoffs are the playoffs however, and Murray has been nothing but spectacular during this Penguins run. Sure he has a deeper Penguins team than in years past in front of him, but the stats depict just how good he was headed into a series against the Metro Division foes.

Using Sportlogiq data, it’s clear that the Penguins were allowing a high volume of scoring chances at even-strength, almost as much as they were generating themselves (14.8). Meanwhile, the Capitals generated about the same as the Penguins did in round 1 (14.0), but reduced Pittsburgh’s even-strength scoring chances to 10.5. One played the Philadelphia Flyers, while the other played Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, but this trend bled into the second-round match-up between the two.

Out-chancing them by just a small margin, the Capitals did this with 4:23 offensive-zone possession at even-strength, compared to the Penguins 4:44. This would change, as offensive-zone possession time shifted to Washington’s favor by Game 4, where they had averaged 6:00 compared to Pittsburgh’s 2:41 after three games. In fact, by the time game six rolled around, Barry Trotz’s club had out-chanced Mike Sullivan’s club in every game, had the better-looking powerplay and had limited the Penguins possession time in their own zone, while improving their own offensive-zone possession.

This is a team’s biggest nightmare. A hot goaltender staying hot. The 21-year old Murray was incredible and it gave the Capitals horrible flashbacks of Jaroslav Halak, when he was stopping nearly everything for the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. Murray was also similar to that of nemesis Lundqvist in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

So while the Capitals had a franchise-record season, a superbly-coached team and an improved structure, they still ran into the same problems; scoring struggles from top point-getters, the inability to finish on chances at even-strength and a hot opposing goaltender. The Capitals will be back next season with much of the same team and could likely challenge for the President’s Trophy again. Where the questions begin are when the regular season ends and whether or not the demons return to haunt this Capitals team.

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