What the Caps Can Learn From the Columbus Series Against Pittsburgh

Posted April 25, 2018

(Caps Outsider)

To say that Washington Capitals fans were uniquely pessimistic after falling 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, is perhaps, to underestimate the frequency with which Capitals fans can fall into pessimism. Yet, here the Capitals are, having advanced to the second round and are the only team in the NHL to have advanced there each of the last 4 years.

As with all playoff series, there are lessons that can be learned amid the statistical noise of a 6 game sample size that may carry over to the next round.

How did the Capitals turn it around and beat Columbus?

First, it cannot be said that the Capitals shot metrics at even strength improved as the series went on. In fact, they actually got worse:

So how’d the Capitals win four straight, despite the underlying metrics trending downward? There are two big reasons: 1. Goaltending and 2. A high shooting percentage binge.

First, the Capitals goaltending really was that much better after Holtby took over. Among goalies who played in at least two games this playoffs, Holtby ranked 7th in save percent (Grubauer next to last) and ranked 5th in GAA/60 (Grubauer third to last). Perhaps the starkest change could be seen in Holtby’s high danger percent saved, an area he struggled with during the year:

Aside from Holtby resuming his form, the Capitals also enjoyed a pretty dramatic shooting percentage increase during the series. There was some regression to the mean going on, although it seems unlikely the Capitals will shoot at 13% or above against the Penguins:

I originally was going to cite the power play as the reason the Caps won 4 in a row… but the Caps scored 5 of their 8 power play goals in Games 1 & 2. The Caps power play was dominant, but it was dominant throughout and I don’t think it was the reason they turned the series around.

It should also be noted that the Capitals penalty kill was quite strong throughout their 4 wins, as they didn’t allow a power play goal during any of their 4 wins.

Deployment trends against Columbus

The Columbus series also revealed a number of subtle insights into coach Barry Trotz’s much scrutinized personnel deployment strategies. Perhaps unsurprising, Trotz’s preference was for Orlov & Niskanen to primarily deploy against CBJ’s top line and top D-pair (and mostly fought them to a draw). Although this is just from game 5, the whole series mirrored this deployment:

What perhaps we did not expect going in is that the Ovechkin/Kuznetsov/Wilson line also saw a majority of their shifts against the top line/pair of CBJ… and basically fought them to a draw. As I’ll mention below, it’ll be intriguing to see if we see a lot of Ovie v. Sid matchups.

Jumping to the other extreme, the oft-criticized Brooks Orpik actually saw slightly more 5v5 ice time in the playoffs than in the regular season, but where he saw that ice time changed significantly:

That’s right, for a defenseman that Trotz praises for his ability to “clear people” from in front of the net, Orpik has actually seen his share of offensive zone draws spike. Perhaps Trotz, although unwilling to admit it publicly, does realize the limitations of his veteran defenseman.

What can the Capitals learn from Columbus?

The Penguins were able to move on past the Flyers in 6 (and exposed lots of Flyers flaws in the process), and their underlying 5v5 metrics were expectedly strong.

Statistic Total Playoff Rank
Goals % 70.43% 3rd
Corsi % 53.89% 4th
Scoring Chances % 69.35% 3rd
High Danger % 55.47% 5th
Expected Goals % 55.04% 5th


That being said, there are a few keys to watch that build on what was discussed above:

  1. The Orlov/Niskanen v. Letang/Dumoulin battle

Perhaps the biggest thing that we learned from CBJ was expected: Trotz is going to ice this pair against the top D-pair of Pittsburgh. If the Caps can hold this matchup to a draw, Pittsburgh does not have a ton of depth beyond this pair (a fact that has been noted by Pittsburgh columnists).

  1. Can Holtby continue to save a strong percentage of high danger shots?

One of the biggest factors in the Penguins/Flyers series wasn’t just the amount of high danger chances the Penguins got, but that they converted on a ridiculous 29% of those chances (tops among playoff teams by a significant margin). If Holtby can hold them to 10-12%—no easy task given the Penguins skill—that could swing the series.

  1. Will the Capitals continue to generate and convert a significant amount of power play goals?

Given the Penguins dominance at 5v5 (and the Capitals struggles during the regular season), the Capitals could need power play goals to win this series. Further, a full 38% of the Capitals goals were scored on the power play, second only to Anaheim and their abysmal 4 goal total performance. If the Capitals can fight Pittsburgh to a draw on 5v5 and get a few power play goals at opportune times, that could go a long way.

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