Sports, sports fans and sports writers can sometimes get a little annoying. Sometimes we can make a game sound more complex than it needs to be. Every major sport these days has some kind of analytics, some kind of fancy stats that, at the end of the day, most people really don’t care about. Sports is all about points. How many did you score at the end of the game, and how many did I/we put on the board.
In hockey, the points are goals. Right now, at the highest level of the game, the Washington Capitals are scoring plenty of goals. That isn’t really shocking honestly. Most people who follow this team figured they wouldn’t have too much trouble scoring goals.
However, early on in this new season, not only are the Capitals scoring plenty of goals, while 5v5 this team is proving to be fairly difficult to score against.
We are four games into the 2021-22 NHL season and the Capitals have only surrendered 2 goals while the teams are at full and even strength. That leads the entire NHL, and there are a bunch of teams that have played fewer games than the Caps as of writing this. Eleven teams to be exact have played less games than the Capitals, all of those teams given up more goals than the team that hails from D.C.
It’s not like the Capitals have played weak competition either. In fact, three of the four teams they’ve faced in the early going finished last season top ten in goal scoring. The Colorado Avalanche finished first, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished eighth, and the New York Rangers finished tenth.
Washington gave up a 5v5 goal to Tampa and Colorado. They did not concede while 5v5 to either New York or New Jersey.
Is this team a lot better defensively? Or is this an early season fluke?
When you look at a few numbers, this team doesn’t really look like they are that much better on defense. When you look at scoring chance against while 5v5 the Capitals have given up 82 chances. That isn’t even close to be the best in the league. It’s actually 18th. Last season Washington gave up 1029 scoring chances. That was fifth best in the NHL by seasons end.
The Caps have also given up 32 high danger chances against, that also puts them in the middle half of the league. Or to put it another way, nothing to write home about. Last season in 56 games they gave up 399 high danger attempts which was 7th best.
We can look at those numbers a little differently to see how much better or worse the team is in these stats.
With the Capitals giving up 82 scoring chances in four games, that means they are giving up 20.5 scoring chances a game. Last season, they were giving up 18.375 scoring chances a game.
Last season this same team gave up 7.1 high danger attempts a game, so far this year they are giving up 8 high danger attempts.
When you look at the numbers, this team is actually a little worse on defense than last season. When I first saw that this team had given up the fewest 5v5 goals it actually shocked me a little bit. Because while watching this team they haven’t exactly looked like the stingiest team I’ve ever seen. They haven’t been bad by any means, but not as great as that number would tell you.
One reason they probably haven’t seemed like the hardest team to score against is the penalty kill. Washington is killing just 72% of the penalties against them early on, they’ve allowed 3 PPG’s on 11 opportunities. We’ll see if that number improves or how much it improves as the sample size gets bigger. That’s a different story for a different time.
So far there is one big reason why 5v5 goals are down to start this season. That reason is something I think a lot of Capitals fans, and critics were worried about going into this season. Goaltending.
Last season, while 5v5 the Capitals had a save percentage of 91.64%. That was, once again, middle of the pack. It ranked 17th in the league. This season, the Capitals have started much, much better. They are on top of the NHL and by a pretty wide margin. So far, the combo of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have a 5v5 save percentage of 97.22%. The second place team is the Calgary Flames, their percentage is at 95.95%.
That really is the only answer as to why the Capitals lead the league in goals against while 5v5. Everything else is average. All of the other numbers are a little worse than last season when the Capitals were a top ten or top five defensive team.
Even after all this has been said, the Capitals gave up 107 goals while 5v5 last season and that was middle of the pack as well, ranking 16th in the league.
The only thing that is different from last season is the excellent goaltending the Caps have seen early in the season.
The 97% save percentage won’t last. Last season, the best save percentage at 5v5 was 93.57%, that was by the Nashville Predators. For that last several seasons the best save percentage in the league has been around that number, somewhere in the 93% area.
When the Capitals save percentage drops, I would guess somewhere between 4-6% it will be interesting to see where the teams ranks in goals given up at full strength.
Right now, the goaltending has been very, very good. It’s the backbone of this team right now. Without it, maybe this team isn’t as good as we think it is? Only time will tell how good this team is on defense.