The Washington Capitals find themselves down 2-0 in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a stunning turn of events considering head coach Barry Trotz saw his team take a two-goal lead in each of those contests. To add insult to injury, both of those games were lost in overtime, making Washington just the sixth team in NHL history to lose its first two playoff games in this fashion despite having home-ice advantage. The five teams before them all lost their respective series.
Both losses can be traced back to poor decision-making and ill-timed penalties by the Capitals. Columbus drawing penalties and the Capitals’ lack of discipline isn’t odd — the Blue Jackets penalty differential (plus-11) ranked 11th during the regular season while the Capitals ranked 28th (minus-34) — but there is another big problem causing for Washington. The Capitals aren’t getting nearly enough production at even strength from their star players.
Credit Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for some of that. The 29-year-old two-time Vezina winner has stopped 56 of 58 even-strength shots and all 22 high-danger chances, those in the slot and the crease, faced at even strength in this series. But while the shot volume overall was high in Game 2, the volume of those high-danger chances — shots with a strong likelihood of finding the back of the net — for Washington hasn’t been there.
The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has outchanced the Blue Jackets 10 to 7 in 25 minutes and 19 seconds of even-strength ice time, with high-danger scoring chances also in their favor by a margin of 4 to 1. However, Ovechkin’s individual production has seen a tremendous decline so far this playoff series. The Great Eight created 12.1 scoring chances per 60 minutes during the regular season but is now producing just 5.3 per 60. Defenseman John Carlson has declined from 5.1 per 60 during the regular season to 1.6 per 60 against Columbus in the playoffs.
The second line featuring Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie have also been on the right side of chances, both overall (14 to 12) and in the high-danger areas (5 to 1). However, they, like Ovechkin’s line, are without an even-strength goal. And therein lies the problem: the only players with an even-strength goal for Washington are Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle.
Some of that futility is offset by the Capitals five power-play goals in 13 opportunities, but for a team to have playoff success it needs to dominate at five-on-five. The Vegas Golden Knights, for example, enjoy a 3-0 series lead thanks in large part to a 5 to 1 even-strength goal margin. The San Jose Sharks have outscored the Anaheim Ducks 4 to 1 and are on pace to upset their playoff opponent after taking a 2-0 series lead. The Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins rank in the top three for even-strength goals scored per 60 minutes, in that order, and are 6-1 combined this postseason. The Penguins put a postseason-high 57 percent of even-strength goals in their favor during last year’s Stanley Cup run. A year before, also a championship year for Pittsburgh, that was 55 percent. This is a pivotal statistic.
It may already be too late for Washington: teams with home-ice advantage that fall 0-2 in a first-round series have only come back to win and advance 9 out of 33 opportunities (17 percent). If they want to be the 10th team to pull off the improbable, it all starts with creating more chances at even strength.