After managing to notch a point in each of their first 9 games, the Caps finally fell in regulation on Monday night. The path they have taken to get there has been pretty crazy. Between Covid issues to 3 of the Caps top skaters, and injury issues throughout the lineup, the fact that they’ve managed to get out of the first 10 games with an above .500 record is pretty amazing. So without any further ado, let’s get into the numbers.

Offense

The Caps offense has been quite paradoxical up until this point. On the one hand, they’re really not generating many shots, but they’re scoring on a ridiculous percentage of them. For instance, here is their offensive zone heat map.

In the offensive zone, red is good, and blue is bad.

Put into words they are generating far fewer chances close to the front of the net when compared to league average. And yet despite this they continue to score. In fact they are scoring from just about everywhere. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Caps have one of the highest shooting percentages in the league on the few high danger chances they are getting. But they’re also one of the highest in all other categories.

In fact only St. Louis has been better at shooting from what could be considered “low danger” areas. This has led to the Caps actual goals FAR outpacing their Expected Goals. Right now, they’re averaging 1.45 Goals/60 more than they’re expected to, which is NUTS. I dug into some past seasons, and the highest I could find for them previously was about 0.57, and that was during the second year of their back to back President’s Trophy wins.

Just to hammer the point home a little harder, they have one of the lowest percentages of high danger shots in the league and yet have, again, the second best shooting percentage behind only St. Louis

Personally, my first instinct was to guess that this was coming from Laviolette’s new system, where D-Men are more active, and perhaps defensemen are taking a large percentage of the Caps shots, which would be the source of all this excess outside shooting.

WRONG.

It is correct that the Caps defensemen are active, that’s not in doubt. In fact, they account for 27% of the Caps goals (second highest in the league). But they are not the source of the excess low-danger shots, as just a third of the Caps shots are coming from Defensemen, which is the 7th fewest in the league.

Ultimately, I see this as both good and bad. The Capitals are converting on opportunities, and creating their own luck, which is something they have struggled with in the past, with the very notable exception of the year that they won the Cup. Anything you can replicate from a Stanley Cup winning season has to have some positive side to it. On the other hand, scoring at this high rate is pretty unsustainable, and they are going to need to find a way to create more opportunities, especially in close.

Of course, the number one player to keep an eye on is the Captain himself. He is currently sitting at just 12.43 Individual Shot Attempts/60. Which, is a hell of a lot for an average NHL player, but not for him. It’s 6 fewer than his previous full season low. Father Time is going to have to catch up to him at some point, and while his shot attempts have been dropping in the last few years I don’t think this is going to be the year they go off a cliff, which means that soon you’re going to see an explosion of shots from Ovi, which in turn means more Ovi goals, which makes everyone happy.

Beyond him, there are several guys who I think have a lot more shot creating potential who, if they make it there, will really have a positive impact on the Caps shooting metrics. Lars Eller, John Carlson, and TJ Oshie are all guys who are shooting less than they ever have before. If those guys can get a few more shots off, this team is going to be damn near impossible to stop.

Despite the majority of the team scoring on every shot they take, there’s also a few guys who have been absolutely snake bit – and yes you know damn well I’m talking about Carl Hagelin. Dude does nothing but take high xG shots and can’t put one in. Finally gets one in and it’s called back for “Offsides.” Richard Panik also doesn’t have a 5v5 goal despite having the team’s second most individual xG, but rest assured, as soon as he does, I’m gonna openly mock all of the haters like I did when he got his powerplay goal.

Summed up, the Caps are in an overall good position offensively, particularly when you consider both the pieces they are outright missing and the guys who haven’t hit their full stride yet. Once this team finally gets fully on their feet, goalies beware.

Defense

As far as defense goes, things have been a lot simpler for the Caps. They keep the puck away from high danger areas and Vanecek stops what gets through.

In the Defensive Zone, Blue is good, Red is bad

Despite being 23rd in total Corsi Against/60, they are 11th in terms of high danger chances allowed (per Natural Stat Trick). In other words, you can take as many shots as you want against the Caps, but you’re not gonna take ’em from wherever you want. A huge portion of this is due to sheer physicality. From NHL.com, the Caps are the 3rd highest hitting team, averaging 26 Hits/60. Combine that with a top ten blocked shot total and you can see why it’s tough to get pucks through them in the defensive zone.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and roses in the D-Zone. That high Shots Against total is not doing Vanecek any favors. And while the team as a whole is doing a good job of not turning the puck over, some of the guys who you’d really want to have good puck management skills in the D-Zone are giving it up left and right. Specifically Chara and Jensen, who are both averaging over 2.5 Giveaways/60. Chara’s in particular have come in devastating areas, with two of them leading directly to opponents scoring.

Some guys who you’d really like to see limiting shots are simply not doing so. For example Jonas Siegenthaler, who normally is a lockdown defenseman is allowing the 6th most shots against on the team. And while about 1/3rd of those are getting blocked, you’d still like to see him settling down, and preventing the shots from being taken altogether.

Overall though, we are seeing the successes of Laviolette’s system in the defensive zone, and a few simple cleanups of some sloppy play in the defensive zone should really give the Caps the boost they need to keep up their winning ways against a very tough East Division.

Goaltending

Vitek Vanecek. That’s it, that’s the tweet.

Dude is an absolute stud. His .935 Save% at 5v5 is 17th in the league, and he was near the top ten before a brutal game on Monday night in which he had very little help I honestly feel a little bad for Samsonov because at this point, even when he comes back, I have no idea when he’s going to get the starters net back when he returns, for the simple fact of how well Vanecek has played.

My biggest criticism of him would be his handling of the puck, but honestly, all goalies are bad at it and they should all stop doing it.

Special Teams

Okay, hear me out. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but the Caps have actually had a lot of time 5v5. In fact, 83% of their regulation time has been 5v5, which is second most in the league, an absolutely mind-boggling statistic. In fact, the Caps are very near the league average in terms of Penalties Taken

It’s the penalties drawn that’s the problem, as they are getting the second fewest calls of any team in the league. After last season, I was particularly concerned about the performance of the Powerplay, but it seems they have gotten it all sorted out, as they are now scoring on 40% of their opportunities.

The Caps have been able to get bomb after bomb off from the outside, absolutely shelling goaltenders. Plus, the powerplay is starting to look like its old lively self, with plenty of movement, good zone entries, and sustained pressure.

The Penalty kill, on the other hand, is suffering after a strong start. In the first few games the PK was operating at 92% efficiency, but that number has since dropped to just 77% in the time since.

Conclusion

Overall, the Caps are playing very well. Many of the problems are fixable mistakes. Through just ten games, this team certainly looks a hell of a lot better than it did last season, playing in what is somehow an even tougher division than last year. Brian MacLellan’s offseason depth moves all appear to have payed off. And as injured and covid afflicted players start to return, you will only see this team further improve.

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