When Dale Hunter assumed control of the Washington Capitals on November 28, the team was tied for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Just under four months later, the Capitals, highly-favoured to win the Conference’s regular season title, were one Winnipeg meltdown away from being in the exact same situation.
See, had the Jets closed out the deal against the Carolina Hurricanes Sunday night, Washington would have been tied in points, at 78, with 10 to play to determine the final playoff spot.
All that jazz, had you told me at the start of the season that the Capitals—a team loaded with star talent and sporting a renovated checking line with the addition of tough minutes Joel Ward and finally getting a goaltender in Tomas Vokoun, wouldn’t have locked up a playoff spot for all intents and purposes by now, I’d have told you you were crazy and quoted a bunch of numbers from some website.
But, as such, the game is played on the ice, and the Caps got off to a slow start, jumped the gun, fired their coach, brought aboard a team legend behind the bench, and proceeded to become one of the worst possession teams in hockey.
Mind you, Washington have been doing well in the last 20 games or so. They’ve crept back to being a positive possession team, this isn’t counting their Sunday loss against Chicago, a game in which they were healthily out-shot, earning 52.7% of the overall Fenwick events—goals, shots and misses—with the score tied, meaning that there’s at least some sort of foundation for success under Hunter. The real problem is that it’s almost feeling too late for this season to be salvaged. Despite out-scoring their opposition 34-32 at 5-on-5, they haven’t been able to win more than 9 games in that stretch.
Part of the problem, and this has been outlined very nicely by Driving Play’s Jared L over at the Copper n Blue, is that the Capitals have played pretty poorly on specialty teams, particularly the powerplay, since Hunter’s arrival. The team has seen a decrease in the shots faced down a man thanks to a healthy focus on shot blocks, but also a decrease in their own powerplay shot rate. Overall, the Capitals have been outscored 48-55 in this 20-game stretch, playing with an even strength PDO of 99.6%, a number that isn’t low enough to make us say “well, golly gee, they ought to be doing so much better given their performance”.
What will determine the success of the Capitals is their special teams, going forward. They’re good enough to win if the game is purely determined at even strength if Michal Neuvirth manages to hold up (not that I don’t trust the ability of a goalie who has a .900 save percentage this season and is .912 at even strength with a limited record of success) but he, particularly with the Caps down a man, will determine their fate.
The bad-ness of the Eastern Conference has helped the Caps stay in this race, but they should be a good enough team to surprise some folks if they make it to the playoffs. They have the advantage battling for that final playoff spot with a two-point cushion over Winnipeg, and, really, come on guys, it’s Winnipeg.
So, you know, they just have to dig deep, battle hard, and play a real solid team game and suss this portion of the season out.
And then get pummelled by either New York or Pittsburgh when they meet them in the playoffs.