One of those nights.

What is happening in Washington?

The most anti-climatic game of the Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin rivalry was played Thursday night. Pittsburgh and Washington played to a 2-1 Penguin win that was far more emblematic of Tomas Vokoun’s career—the game itself was a microcosm of what Vokoun has been through—and Crosby and Ovechkin were held off the score sheet.

Washington is in a free fall and have been for weeks. After a perfect 7-0 start where nothing could go wrong, things started to go wrong. High percentages, close, overtime and shootout victories caught up to the Capitals. A week after their 7-0 start, they were 7-2. A month later, they had fallen to 12-11, with Thursday’s loss sending the Capitals to an unconscionable .500 on the season.

This picture sort of gets it all, doesn't it?

They’ve fired their coach, benched their superstar, sent another to the pressbox for a game and have yet to generate wins. Why?

It’s cliché, but percentages do play a big part. The Capitals were a much better team than the 5-8 November-under-Boudreau record indicated. They outshot their opponents 364 to 324 at even strength. Michal Neuvirth stopped just 87.2% of pucks and Tomas Vokoun just 88.5%, well off their career averages. Boudreau was a victim of his team’s lacklustre goaltending, which was bound to turn around.

After all, Tomas Vokoun has stopped 93.1% of shots at even strength over the last three seasons in Florida. Neuvirth’s record is a little more modest, stopping 92.2% of the 1355 shots he faced in three shortened seasons before this one. It’s so clear that the two of them will regress to a number more consistent with their past performance. Why judge a goaltender after his last 20 games instead of his last 100?

You can out-shoot a team, you can out-chance a team, your skaters can dominate the game by every available metric we have on paper and can be visibly better than the other team, keeping the puck at the right end of the ice at all times, but that doesn’t always guarantee wins. Goaltending, and the bounces a team picks up in the whereabouts of the crease, is the volatile constant in the great equation of hockey, and Washington believed they had finally found their man this season.

Vokoun is not the best goaltender in the world, and won’t retire with the Vezina Trophies won by Dominik Hasek or the Stanley Cups won by Patrick Roy. He won’t be remembered for any clutch victories or his win totals, but is more like the Czech version of Curtis Joseph: he has played in anonymous markets for bad teams and stopping just as many shots as the top keepers in the league. When he said after the Pittsburgh game that “it’s hard to win with one goal.”

He saves this one, and Bruce Boudreau is probably still in Washington.

One quote, out of context, can make Vokoun appear like he isn’t a team player, and the misfortunes of the Capitals aren’t landing on his own shoulders. But, as mentioned above, the Pittsburgh game, and the St. Louis game which was the first for the Capitals in the post-Boudreau era, the Capitals no longer became a good team hindered by bad goaltending. They became a lifeless team, failing to win puck battles or generate offense. The Blues outshot Washington 30-19, and the Penguins 35-17. The Capitals, down by a cheap goal in the third period allowed by Vokoun, generated just a pair of shots in the frame, despite being behind, and therefore all the more likely to control the play.

Just two shots, both midway through the period, recorded by Karl Alzner and Cody Eakin. There was no Alexander Ovechkin, no Alexander Semin, no Nicklas Backstrom, no Mike Knuble or Troy Brouwer. The last recorded shot attempt for the Capitals was with 3:12 to go, an Alzner attempt blocked by Pittsburgh’s Tyler Kennedy, and, at the conclusion of the game, even with the extra skater, Washington couldn’t gain the zone.

This is a hockey team that tried to fix too much too soon. Rather than trust the shot counters and the numerical indicators, all the ways we can predict a hockey season, the Capitals instead fired their coach, and the expected boost or jump hasn’t come from Dale Hunter, the new man in charge.

What Washington really needs is a return to those teal abominations.

Is Hunter trying to do too much and possibly taking away from how dominant the Capitals are at controlling shots and scoring chances? Has his influence made the Capitals both unlucky and awful? Why did Ovechkin record a single shot attempt against the Penguins? Why has the most dominant offense since the lockout just run into a stump? We’ll need about 20 games to be able to put our finger on the pulse of the Capitals under Dale Hunter, but the early symptoms aren’t favourable. Not only has the team lost two bad, 1-goal games, they have looked terrible doing it, playing much of those games inside the wrong blue line.

It just goes to show what a month of bad goaltending can do. The team’s focus has shifted after an offseason where the team picked up important pieces at every position. General Manager George McPhee refused to overspend on any of these pieces, not falling into any kneejerk trap. But a few bad losses that take you to two games above .500 that had the team on pace for 93 points despite knowing that things will turn around can change an analytical thinker into an emotional beast.

Washington was a good team that wasn’t getting the bounces. It remains to be seen, after having watched their last two contests, whether they still fit into that mould, or if they’ve become an average team that isn’t getting the bounces.

Comments (11)

  1. I hate to say it, but this is a really common error I’m seeing in a lot of save percentage analysis. It’s really a stat more indicative of team defense rather than goaltending.

    That picture you showed of Vokoun not making the save…where is Washington’s defense?

    If you look at the two games where both goalies played (i.e. one was pulled), they are equally brutal save percentages for both goalies, as in both were probably facing much higher probability scoring chances due to the breakdown of defensive play up front. On paper Neuvirth looks worse, but in reality he played one game during their winning streak, when the team was playing much better defense.

    What makes far more sense to me would be the impact of Mike Green on the team’s ability to break the puck out and defend against the rush. Easily the most compelling stat:

    With Mike Green: 8-0
    Without Mike Green: 4-11-1

    Perfect record with Green in the lineup, absolutely dreadful without.

    • If that were the case, the player’s save percentage wouldn’t jump around so much on a month-to-month basis.

      I can agree that a lot of save percentage has to do with teams failing to clear rebounds, or allowing a breakaway every play, but when you play more games, I’ve noticed the quality of shots tends to balance out.

      And, of course, the smaller the sample size, the weirder the stats you find, such as Tomas Vokoun stopping fewer than 90% of shots, or Paul Bissonnette “leading” the NHL in on-ice save percentage last season among defensemen.

  2. This article has a bad Fenwick rating. And it’s CORSI is also shitty.

  3. This article also has a poor even strength save percentage. But it’s boring the fuck out of me percentage is off the charts.

  4. “Vokoun is more like the Czech version of Curtis Joseph: he has played in anonymous markets for bad teams.”

    i get it. like the anonymous markets of toronto and st. louis. and that bad team in detroit.

  5. I don’t really see why you’re judging Dale so quickly. You are arguing that th goalies stats will correct, and that we shouldn’t judge them, on their last 20, but by their last 100. Why is Dale not afforded the same treatment? He’s been with the team for 2 games. We don’t have a sample size bug enough, according to your own theory, to judge whether he’s doing a good or bad job. And the thing is, the caps really were playing poorly before Boudreau left. They did have bad stats, and not just in the net, to support Bruce’s firing. So maybe it’s just too soon to tell.

  6. Caps’ scoring chance percentage was under 50%, I think. Their Corsi has been declining over the past four years–56, 55, 53, 50.

  7. @ngreenberg had the Caps falling below 50% of the scoring chances over the course of the season. It wasn’t just goaltending, the Caps were actually getting worse as the season went along.

    One reason that save percentages fluctuate is gross luck – the bounces, etc. Another reason is a related cousin, but subtlety different phenomenon, scheme adjustments. NHL coaching matters, and teams are constantly adjusting to each others’ strategies and deployments. They introduce new wrinkles and figure out how to exploit old ones, but how quickly opponents adjust effectively isn’t easily predictable. That makes it look very similar to luck, but it isn’t the same, not really.

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