Be wary of puck luck in wins

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After barely breaking even at the 20-game mark, the Washington Capitals have gone on a 12-2 run since Feb. 28. The Capitals sit in first place in the East, grade out as a top-10 team by expected goals and generally outshoot the opposition, according to Evolving Hockey. For the most part, it’s the same old Capitals. Even with an aging core, they still outperform expected goals, the way they have in so many previous seasons:
 
 
Season GF/60 xGF/60 Delta
20-21 3.41 2.53 0.88
19-20 3.39 3.06 0.33
18-19 3.32 2.89 0.43
17-18 3.1 2.72 0.38
16-17 3.19 2.78 0.41
15-16 3 2.8 0.2
14-15 2.84 2.66 0.18
13-14 2.69 2.55 0.14
12-13 3.03 2.56 0.47
11-12 2.63 2.31 0.32
 
We should expect the Capitals to outperform these models given their history of doing so, but this is inexplicable. In previous seasons, the Capitals’ elite shooting talent helped them score about 0.4 more goals than expected per 60 minutes compared with a difference of 0.9 goals this season. This is driven mostly by the team having been very fortunate, especially five-on-five. 
 
The Capitals have scored on almost 12% of their five-on-five shots, about two percentage points better than any other team. In fact, their 11.58% five-on-five success rate is about three percentage points higher than the team’s average shooting percentage (8.55) since 2010-11. The team hasn’t even come close to this mark in the last 10 seasons.
 
Eight of the Capitals’ last 14 games have come against the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Sabres —  teams outside the playoff picture. Sure, there is something to be said about the Capitals’ ability to put away weak teams. But when they face off against the rest of the division, which will often be the case between now and the end of the season, the Capitals could come back to earth. They have a very good goaltender in Ilya Samsonov, but they’re ranked 17th by expected goals on defense.
 
Another team that has been on quite a run is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have gone 12-3-1 since the calendar flipped to March. However, much like the Capitals, a large portion of those wins have come against the Sabres, Devils and Flyers. Over this stretch, the Penguins have owned about 49% of the expected goals at five-on-five and have a negative shot-attempt differential of -26. Despite this, and the fact that Evgeni Malkin has missed the last two weeks, the Pens have enjoyed a + 13 goal differential. A turnaround in goal has been the driving force behind the Penguins’ recent surge, and that’s why it’s reasonable to conclude that this team is playing over its head. Between the start of the season and the end of February, the Penguins had the league’s third-worst on-ice save percentage at .888. Therefore, some positive regression was expected. However, since March 2, the Penguins have had the best save percentage in hockey at .942.
 
Tristan Jarry has played 11 games in March and has a .928 save percentage in just over 600 minutes. Counterpart Casey DeSmith has posted a .969 mark in five appearances that total just under 280 minutes. Jarry still has a long way to go before he will be looked at as a stable option. DeSmith, on the other hand, continues to stake his claim as the No. 1 goaltender in Pittsburgh. Either way, the Penguins aren’t as good as their recent record indicates. According to Evolving Hockey, the Penguins grade out as the 21st-best team by expected goals. In other words, they’re just outside the bottom 10. Consider this when handicapping Penguins games.
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