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The Outliers

May 17, 2013

As the Caps prepared to head into the playoffs last season against the Boston Bruins – one of the league’s top 5-on-5 teams during the 2011-12 season – I wrote a blog entry about the Capitals’ recent special teams history in the playoffs. The term “recent” included the team’s current run of consecutive playoff appearances that dates back to 2008.


At the time, the Caps had played six postseason series since 2008, and their special teams index “magic number” was 101 for all of them.


First, special teams index is simple to figure. It’s merely power play percentage plus penalty killing percentage. In any given series, the two teams are going to add up to exactly 200, so a score above 100 would represent a special teams advantage in the series. The higher the number, the greater the special teams advantage.


Washington won two of those six playoff series from 2008-11, and it posted a special teams index north of 101 in both of those. It had lost four of the six series, coming in with a special teams index south of 101 in each of those.


Last spring, the Caps managed to surprise the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in a tightly contested first-round series that went the full seven games. And once again, the special teams index was right on. The Caps posted a 107.1 mark (15.8% on the power play and 92.3% on the penalty kill) in the series against Boston.


In their second-round series against the New York Rangers last spring, the Caps authored an impressive 104 special teams mark (20% on the power play and 84% on the penalty kill), but it wasn’t enough to take the series. New York won it in seven.


Once again this spring, the Caps had a strong special teams index of 111.7, the best figure they’ve managed in any of their last 20 playoff series – win or lose – which covers a span of two decades (more on that later).


There has been a lot of focus on the disparity of power play opportunities between the Rangers (28) and the Caps (16) in the just-completed series between the two teams. That’s understandable. Given that the 2012-13 Capitals were the NHL’s best power-play team in the last 23 years, you can make the case that a few more power play chances here or there might have made a difference for Washington in the series against New York. The Caps’ total of 16 extra-man opportunities resulted in their lowest average number of power play chances per game (2.29) in any of the 37 Stanley Cup Playoff series in which they’ve participated.


You can also make the case that the Capitals simply weren’t good enough at even-strength to win the series.


For the second time in as many springs, the Caps were facing a first-round opponent that ranked third in the league during the regular season in 5-on-5 ratio. During the 2012-13 regular season, the Rangers were tied with Detroit as the stingiest team in the league in 5-on-5 goals against (70).


My game preview for the series opener contained the following passage:


Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Capitals in the series ahead is scoring 5-on-5 goals against the Rangers. Washington scored three such goals in 165 minutes of regular season hockey against New York during the regular season, and the Rangers allowed a league-low total of 70 goals in 48 games while they and their opponents skated five to a side.


“Not try and do too much at the blueline,” says Brouwer when asked how the Caps can create offense in 5-on-5 situations. “Once we get the puck down low they collapse a lot, so we’ll have to work hard for our chances. Hopefully we can create off the rush without turning pucks over, because with their new acquisitions at the blueline they have a lot of quick forwards to add to their already fast forward corps. So if we turn pucks over, they’re just going to keep coming on odd-man rushes at us and our defensemen and goalie don’t need that.”


“You’ve got to get the puck deep and try to wear them out,” says Backstrom of the Rangers. “They’re collapsing. You’ve got to try to get pucks through from the blueline, too, because they’re blocking them pretty good.”


Whatever the Caps tried in 5-on-5 play against the Rangers didn’t work.


Washington scored a dozen goals in the seven-game series, six in its four home games and six in three road games. Only three of its six home goals came at even-strength; all six of its road goals came at even-strength.


The Caps scored a pair of even-strength goals against New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist in the series opener at Verizon Center, earning a 3-1 win in the process. But in the next 222 minutes and 17 seconds of hockey played at Verizon Center in the series, the Capitals managed just one even-strength goal. That was Mike Ribeiro’s overtime game-winner in Game 5.


It wasn’t for a lack of trying. After Jason Chimera’s goal gave the Caps a 3-1 lead late in the second period of Game 1, Washington teed up nearly a shot per minute – 216 of them in that span of 222:17 – but had just that Ribeiro goal to show for its efforts. Lundqvist stopped 96 of the 97 even-strength shots the Capitals put on net at Verizon Center after Chimera’s Game 1 goal.


The Caps scored three even-strength goals on Lundqvist in Game 3 in New York and three more in Game 4. That’s usually a death knell for King Henrik; he was 0-14 in the previous 14 playoff games in which he had surrendered as many as three goals. The Caps dropped both of those games by identical 4-3 counts. If Washington had managed to win one of those two games, it might have won the series in five and Lundqvist’s Game 6 and 7 shutouts might never have occurred.


Alas, it didn’t play out that way. The Caps won the special teams battle by a sizable margin, but most of the game is still played at even-strength. And although the Capitals dominated the Rangers at even-strength in terms of possession and territory over much of the series, it didn’t translate into enough goals to make a difference.


Twenty years ago, the Caps demonstrated a much more dominant special teams advantage in a six-game series only to find themselves on the losing end when all was said and done.


Facing the New York Islanders in the first round, Washington matched club marks for the most power play goals scored (nine) and the fewest power play goals allowed (one) in a series. With a torrid 34.6 percent power play success rate and a decidedly stingy 96.6 percent penalty-killing rate, the Caps’ special teams index was 131.2, the best it has ever managed in any of its 37 postseason series.


However, the Islanders won three straight overtime games (Games 2-4) and outscored the Caps by a decisive total of 22-13 at even-strength in the six games.


Historically, special teams index of 101 or better has been enough to win a series, and a sub-101 will lose a series. That’s held true for two-thirds of Washington’s postseason series over the last two decades. But the Caps’ two best special teams index performances in the postseason over the last 20 years both resulted in losses, to the Rangers in 2013 and to the Islanders in 1993. Those are the outliers.