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Capitals Special Teams Boosting Them to the Top

SB Nation logo SB Nation 3 days ago Luke Adomanis
a group of people riding skis on top of a pole © Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

The Washington Capitals are on top of the NHL standings once again. They currently hold the top spot through 17 games with 27 points, with just five losses on their record and only two of them in regulation.

The start of the hockey season is always a bit wild, and things can change quickly, so it could just be that they are getting lucky... but with a very respectable (and sustainable) 101.4 PDO, luck doesn’t seem to have played much of a role.

One reason for their dominance may be that their special teams have really begun to click. Looking at the special team index (the sum of their power-play and penalty-kill percentages) they’re currently ranked third:

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The Capitals currently have the fourth-best power play and seventh-best penalty kill in the League, with huge improvements in both from last year’s power play (20.8%, 12th) and penalty kill (78.9%, 24th).

So what’s different?

Using Natural Stat Trick, let’s compare how last season and this season’s special teams look:

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(Note: all stats are per 60 minutes)

Last season’s penalty kill really wasn’t as bad as the surface-level numbers might lead you to believe. The Caps did a pretty good job of limiting changes against, and while they were 19th in high danger chances against, the result still should have put them in the middle of the pack on the penalty kill rankings.

The issue last year that bumped them down to the bottom-third of the League in that department was the goaltending, or lack thereof. The Caps’ shorthanded save percentage overall was third-worst, and while they did face some tough chances against, they probably should have been better.

This season, though, the Caps’ penalty-killers have been superb. They’ve improved on every stat from last season and are currently top-10 in every category. They are limiting shots against and high danger chances against at a great rate. The goalies could still be better, but the team is doing a better job in front of them and it’s making a big difference.

The additions of great penalty killers like Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Radko Gudas, along with the rise of Jonas Siegenthaler has made a big difference. And their success has allowed some of the team’s big guns like Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson to reduce their shorthanded workload - which seems like a pretty good idea - and has paid off for the team as a whole.

Now let’s take a look at the power play.

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Interestingly enough, the Caps have actually gotten worse on the man advantage in just about every category except high-danger chances (and even that is pretty close). What’s really making them click is that they are actually hitting the net way more - to the tune of a near-6% jump in shooting percentage over all, and a crazy 11% jump in shooting percentage while in high-danger areas.

As noted above, luck hasn’t really played too big of a role for the Caps at five-on-five, but it definitely has come into play while up a man. While they could possibly maintain their current shooting percentage (four teams last season shot over 17% on the power play, with the Tampa Bay Lightning hitting over 21%), there’s no way their high-danger shooting percentage doesn’t come down. No team hit 30% last season while in high danger areas, though four did hover above 27%.

So while the Caps do have a lot of great shooting talent on the power play, it’s unlikely that they continue to cash in at such a high rate from the high-danger area, which could cause the power play to take a step back at some point (barring further adjustments).

Still, it doesn’t necessarily need to stay at its current level as long as the penalty kill continues to show such improvement over last year, something which is very much sustainable. If the Capitals can find a way to keep the power play humming along and not take too much of a step back, they should be able to stay among the League’s best in both categories - and that’s definitely a good thing.

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