The Capitals Are (Probably) the Most Improved 5v5 Playoff Team of the Last Ten Years

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Posted May 15, 2018

In the midst of Game 2 (where the Capitals ran off 5 straight unanswered goals), Russian Machine Never Breaks co-founder Ian Oland tweeted the following:

With the Capitals two measly games away from their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 20 years, perhaps we should take a step back and realize exactly how drastic (and unprecedented) this improvement is.

Where the Capitals were entering the playoffs

First, to put this improvement into context, the Capitals entered the postseason with 5v5 possession stats that placed them among the worst teams in the league. This led for multiple people to (justifiably!) call for Head Coach Barry Trotz to be fired.

Statistic (Regular Season) Percentage NHL Rank
Corsi% 48.29 23rd
Scoring Chances% 48.43 24th
High Danger% 45.38 31st

Where the Capitals are now

Yet, somehow, the Capitals have completely turned around their game in the postseason, and the Capitals now rank within the top half of playoff teams in possession stats.

Statistic (Playoffs) Percentage Playoff Rank
Corsi% 52.06 5th
Scoring Chances% 53.15 4th
High Danger% 53.42 4th

How unprecedented is this improvement?

Perhaps the most remarkable note about the Capitals drastic improvement is simple: it is really hard to see dramatic rises in possession stats come playoff time, particularly as the competition improves and the margins of victory become incredibly thin.

To show exactly how difficult it is to see improvement in the postseason, let’s look at the 46 playoff teams that’ve played 14 or more playoff games within the last 10 years. Of these 46 teams, all but 5 made the conference finals. (Naturally, 3 of these 5 teams are the Washington Capitals.)

Yet, even within this elite subset of successful teams, there’s typically a large decline from the regular season to the postseason in both Corsi, goals, and Expected Goals (calculated from Corsica):

Statistic (5v5) Average % Change from Regular Season to Postseason
Corsi% -2.04%
Goals% -0.14%
xGF% -1.87%

Again, this isn’t unexpected. Even amongst the elite teams, the competition in the playoffs is much higher, and you’d expect to see regression.

That being said, the Capitals’ improvement has them in some truly unprecedented company when it comes to Corsi%, Goals% and xGF%:

Statistic (5v5) % Change from Regular Season to Postseason Rank among teams playing 14 (or more) playoff games within the last 10 years
Corsi% 2.68% 1st
Goals% 6.06% 7th
xGF% 4.91% 1st

That’s right, amongst teams that’ve played 14 or more games, the Capitals are arguably the single most improved playoff team of the last 10 years.

It isn’t completely clear exactly how the Capitals have pulled this off…but either way, this drastic improvement is unprecedented among playoff teams who’ve made deep runs. And even better, if the Capitals can keep this up, we could see bigger and better things to come.

(NOTE: This article uses data from Natural Stat Trick and Corsica, which everyone should subscribe to. The data here is score & venue adjusted unless mentioned otherwise.)