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Did the Capitals Choke or did the Canadiens Win It?

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It’s been touted as one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history and most people agree. Down 3-1 in a best of seven series seems insurmountable, especially when it’s against one of the best regular season teams in years.

In my Eastern Conference review on who would make the playoffs, I was a little more positive on Montreal than most, predicting them to finish 5th in the conference. While I was a little off there, the reasons showed themselves in this series (goaltending, depth and special teams).

Announcers praised the Canadiens ability to block shots and Halak’s stellar performance. Today, everyone debated whether or not Ovechkin and company choked.

More than anything, I just wanted to take a deeper look and make my own conclusions.

Regular Season

The Caps obviously dominated the regular season like no other team in recent memory. They scored at an alarming rate, but surprisingly didn’t dominate possession in the way most people think they did. At even strength, they averaged 31.9 Shots For per 60 minutes, but gave up 30. They were, however, a +1.3 per 60 minutes at even strength, due to an unusually high shooting percentage.

The Habs on the other hand were underwater for possession over the course of the year. They averaged 26.9 shots for per 60 minutes at even strength, but gave up 31. They were also at -0.2 goals per 60 minutes at ES.

What really stood out, however, was the power play. The Caps had a 8.1 +/- per 60 minutes with the man advantage, which was the best in the league by far. But guess what? The Habs were actually second in the NHL with a +7.0 PP per 60.

In net, according to this preview article on the Behind the Net Blog, the Canadiens had a slight advantage, based on 4-year save percentages for Halak (92.5%) and Price (92.3%) being slightly better than Varlamov (92.7%) and Theodore (91.6%).

On paper, this looked like a clear advantage for Washington, with Montreal needing some stellar performances to have a chance.

The Series

So what happened? We know the Caps were the better team going in. The analysts told us that, we could see it with our own eyes and even the stats say the same thing.

Did the Capitals really choke? Not really. In some ways they elevated their game, in others they severely underperformed and lastly, they fell victim to the performance of a lifetime.

Even Strength Dominance by the Capitals

The Washington Capitals absolutely dominated 5-on-5 play throughout the series. Take a look at the shot comparison at even strength (per 60 min).

WSH shots for: 31.9 Reg 40.7 vs Mtl
WSH shots against: 30.0 Reg 27.3 vs Mtl

A shot differential of 13.4 per 60 minutes is astounding, but it only resulted in a +0.9 goals per 60.

Powerplay Invisibility

Both teams struggled on the power play in the series, but the Capitals clearly lost their way. Take a look at the PP +/- per 60 minutes below.

WSH 8.1 Reg 1.1 vs Mtl
MTL 7.0 Reg 3.8 vs Wsh

I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened, but the Capitals took the most prolific powerplay in the league and replaced it’s Ferrari engine with that of a Smart Car. While Montreal’s PP also struggled, they still held a significant edge on special teams.

Shot Blocking

Despite Pierre McGuire’s incessant obsession with blocking shots, I couldn’t wipe it completely from my mind. Was Montreal really as special in this area as he thought?

It turns out that the man who loves "The Monsters" was right. Montreal’s defensemen, ranked as 5 of the top 8 players for total blocked shots in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, count stats aren’t entirely relevant when each team has played a different amount of games. I decided to use blocked shots per 60 minutes of ice time instead. Here were the best shot-blockers in the series.

O’Byrne Mtl 11.1
Spacek Mtl 9.7
Hamrlik Mtl 9.6
Alzner Wsh 9.2
Gill Mtl 8.9
M.Green Wsh 6.4
Markov Mtl 6.2
Gorges Mtl 6.1

Of the top 8 shot-blockers in the series, 6 were Montreal defenseman, and they blocked shots at an alarming rate. This "first-line goaltending", coupled with the performance of the actual goalie (see below), made it extremely difficult for Washington to ever find the twine.

The Performance of a Lifetime

While we all saw Jaroslav Halak put in one of the best 3-game stretches a goaltender has ever played, it’s important to put it in the context of his career.

Halak’s 4-year average save percentage is 92.5% and this season he turned in a typical 92.4%. As Gabe over at Behind the Net has taught me, regular season save percentage is the best indicator of playoff save percentage.

Had Halak matched his career average, the Caps would have averaged 3 goals per 60 minutes at ES, given the shot rate they had in the playoffs. Had Halak raised his game significantly to a 95% rate, the Caps would have averaged 2 goals per 60 at ES.

Instead, Halak had a 97.7% save percentage over the final 3 games of the series, which were all potential elimination games for Montreal. At that rate, he was only giving up ~1 goal per 60 minutes at ES.

Essentially, Halak’s elevated play saved the Habs ~2 goals per 60 minutes at ES, which was easily enough to turn the tide over the final 3 games, as two were decided by a single goal.

Did Montreal win or did Washington choke?

Washington didn’t choke, they lost to a team playing at their peak. There is a saying is soccer that says "form is temporary, but class is permanent". The point is that the talent level of a team will win out over the long haul like the regular season, but any team can get hot at the right time and exceed their talent level.

The Habs had a goalie with a save percentage that was 5% better than his career average! That’s a 2 goal per game differential.

On a more individual level, many will say that Alex Ovechkin is extremely talented but can’t win in the clutch. Just remember that the same criticism was leveled at Steve Yzerman early in his career. You just never know how it will turn out.