Before the playoffs began, the citizens of Washington, D.C., probably thought the perpetually tantalizing Capitals had a real chance of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. The Caps had just secured their third Presidents’ Trophy1 in eight years, and they were the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. On paper at least, there were plenty of reasons to think it was finally going to be Washington’s year.
Unfortunately for Washingtonians, a lot can change in three weeks. After squeaking past the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one, the Capitals now find themselves trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in nine years. The 3-1 hole Washington faces against Pittsburgh this time around is daunting, and if the Caps have any hope for a comeback, it starts with recovering a few of their best regular-season weapons: shooting and stopping the puck with greater efficiency.
Washington and Pittsburgh met in the second round twice before during the Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby era, and on both occasions it ended badly for the Capitals. In 2009, the Penguins won a hard-fought, high-scoring series in seven games. The teams had been virtual equals during the regular season,2 and the series was either team’s to win, marked mainly by some pretty awful goaltending on both ends of the ice. Pittsburgh happened to score a few more goals in the end, and although Washington was disappointed to lose to their archrivals, it would be unfair to say the Caps choked.
Washington’s second-round exit last season — again at the hands of the Penguins — was a different story, but not all that different. The series went just six games, and was defined by exquisite goaltending from both teams. But it was still a close affair: All but one of the games were decided by one goal. And although the standings and the metrics suggested that Washington was the best team in the NHL during the regular season, it wasn’t like Pittsburgh was a major underdog — they finished fourth in points and second in SRS, right behind Washington. The Capitals may have underperformed (and definitely shattered the hearts of everyone in D.C. for the umpteenth time), but they weren’t eliminated by some team that barely snuck into the playoffs, either.
Of course, those aren’t the only times the Capitals have felt the sting of postseason disappointment. In 2009-10, they notched 121 points during the regular season — the second-most of any team since the 2004-05 lockout — on the strength of a dominant offense and solid goaltending before losing to a significantly worse (by almost any metric) Montreal Canadiens team in the first round of the playoffs. They’ve also been upset one other time as a 1-seed (2011) and two other times as a 3-seed (2008 and 2013). Add in the loss that might be coming this season, and the Caps will have lost nine of their 15 playoff series in the Ovechkin era.
Washington isn’t done yet. But down three games to one against the Penguins, it’s time to hit the panic button in D.C. Even with their emotional overtime win in Game 3, followed by the news of Crosby’s untimely (and terrifying) head injury, the Capitals were unable to regain a grip on the series Wednesday night. If Washington is going to mount the improbable comeback, they’ll have to start playing their game again — and soon.
For starters, the Capitals must remember how to shoot. Washington led the league with a shooting percentage of 10.5 percent during the regular season, but that number has dipped to 7.6 for the playoffs and just 6.3 in this series with Pittsburgh. Caps stars Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are capitalizing on their chances, but secondary scorers such as T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson and all-time playoff darling Justin Williams remain goalless for the series.
And efficient shooting isn’t Washington’s only problem; they’re not getting great goaltending from the traditionally impenetrable Braden Holtby, either.
In 12 games last postseason, Holtby recorded nine quality starts,3 an excellent rate for the postseason. In 10 playoff games this year, he’s recorded just four quality starts. His career quality start percentage for the playoffs is 69; this season, that number is only 44.4 It’s hard to record quality starts if you can’t keep the puck out of the net, and Holtby hasn’t been very good at doing that this postseason. His save percentage for these playoffs is .909 — the lowest of his career by a wide margin — and a miserable .867 for the series against the Penguins.
Save percentage is notoriously unstable, particularly in the small sample of the postseason. But this just adds to Washington’s snakebit legacy: Holtby came into the Pittsburgh series with the best playoff save percentage in the history of the NHL (among goalies with at least 20 career playoff appearances since the 1954-55 season),5 only to transform into a sieve against the Penguins.
To be sure, it’s not all Washington’s — or Holtby’s — fault. Everything seems to be going right for Pittsburgh, too. Through four games, the Penguins are scoring on an insane 15.1 percent of the shots they’re taking — compare that to the 7.7 percent shooting mark they had in last year’s second-round matchup against Washington.6 They’ve gotten multiple goals from both established stars (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel) and playoff wunderkinds (Jake Guentzel) alike. Between the pipes, the experienced-but-mediocre Marc-Andre Fleury — whose career playoff save percentage of .909 barely cracks the top 60 among goalies who’ve played in at least 20 games, and who lost his job to a rookie last postseason (and therefore didn’t play a minute against the Capitals a year ago) — has saved 93.7 percent of the shots he’s faced so far.7 Apparently, the Penguins just really enjoy beating the Capitals in the second round of the playoffs — each of the last two times they’ve done so, they’ve gone on to win the Stanley Cup.
Earlier this year, I wrote that the Capitals were lucky because they’re good. Which is to say, they had the best PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) in the league not just because of fluke performances but also because their skaters have a proven knack for shooting the puck with great efficiency and their goalies had a great track record of stopping the puck. But hardly any of that has been on display against the Pens thus far. Maybe they were luckier than we thought all along.
Either way, if the Capitals can’t relocate what made them great during the regular season, they’ll be trading their hockey bags for beach bags within the week.