The Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals has become fertile ground for writers and fans tilling their bad narrative gardens. For years, the hockey world has gorged themselves on the plump juicy narratives they’ve harvested in the fields of Washington. Every fall, they sow the seeds of “this has to be the year” and every spring, they feast on the delicious “the Caps can’t get it done in the clutch.”
This year, the rain and sunlight feeding those gardens of mediocrity in hockey analysis is coming from Tampa Bay. And we have plenty of rain here so the gardens are thriving. Here is a list in no particular order of things I’ve seen from fans and writers across the NHL:
- OMG THE CAPS ARE COLLAPSING AGAIN!!!
- The Lightning lost the first two games because they didn’t want to win badly enough.
- The Caps have again run into a hot goalie, woe is them.
- The Lightning are winning because their fourth line is trying really hard.
- The Lightning are playing their fourth line too much, get them off the ice.
Here’s the thing: none of that stuff is true. All of it is retrofitting pre-constructed narratives to fit the outcomes. If the Caps win games six and seven, we’ll see another pivot in the narratives to talk about how “this is the Caps year” and they’re “a team of destiny.” And on the other side, we’ll hear about the Lightning collapsing with comparisons to 2016 when the Lightning lost after going up 3-2 on the Penguins despite how wildly different these two series are.
So what is actually happening in this series? Hear me out. What if what we’re seeing is: two good teams...playing at a high level...in a close series?? I get that “ZOMG THE CAPS ARE CAPSING AGAIN!!!” is catchier, but if we move past the rotten low-hanging fruit, this series has better stories to tell.
The following chart shows a series summary of shots and expected goals at 5v5 through the first five games. Data here is via Natural Stat Trick and Corsica. The data is adjusted for score and venue (home/away).
The first thing to notice here is that the series has been almost perfectly even. The expected goals are within .08 of each other at 5v5. Washington has a lead in shots but Tampa has gotten better shots and that has allowed them to stay slightly ahead in xG. That’s interesting! Rarely do we see teams this evenly matched after five games. In fact, it’s almost impossible for a series to be any closer than this after five games.
Looking at a series that’s this close, I don’t know how anyone could determine that goaltending has been the difference. Both goalies have played well enough but neither has been outstanding. Holtby has given up 1.28 more goals than expected in all situations, and Vasilevskiy 1.43. If anything, Holtby has been a little better, but regardless, goaltending isn’t the difference here.
The bottom of the chart shows individual player shot differentials and it offers multiple stories that deserve exploring. Let’s start with the fourth line for the Lightning. They’ve been matched against the Caps’ top line for much of the series and are one of only two Lightning lines to be above water in shot differential. That’s a huge deal. And it isn’t because they try really hard.
The Tampa fourth line having success against the Caps also isn’t a new thing. In fact, I wrote about it in the series preview.
One unusual thing is that Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz had wild shot differentials. That was driven mostly by the two games they played against the Caps early in the season. Much of the damage was done against the fourth line but in the game in November, Callahan and Kunitz spent some time against the Caps top line and got the better of that matchup as well.
While three regular season games don’t mean much, the differential here is big enough that I’ll be interested to see how the Lightning fourth line performs in this series. Having anything close to the advantage they had in the regular season games would be a nice boost when the top lines aren’t on the ice.
Something about that fourth line works for the Bolts against the Caps. I’m not sure exactly what it is but resorting to “they try real hard out there” does everyone a disservice. Usually when that line has success, it happens because they limit the opposition’s shots. That speaks to defensive play, puck recovery in the defensive zone, clean zone exits, and forechecking in the offensive zone. We would need to dive deeper into the data to check on those things but all of those are better guesses at why that line has worked against the Caps than “effort.”
Getting that kind of play from the fourth line should give the Lightning a big advantage. But it hasn’t. Instead, the Caps have been dominant against the Lightning’s top six. That’s also interesting! The Lightning have relied for much of the season on their balanced top nine to drive their success. The Brayden Point line was the key to the Boston series but they’ve been largely neutralized in this series.
The chart below shows the running expected goal totals for the series through the first five games. All the data here is via Corsica and again adjusted for score and venue (home/away).
At both 5v5 and in all situations, this series is basically dead even. At 5v5, TB leads by .08 xG. In all situations, the Caps lead by .06 xG. That’s basically nothing and this series is as good as tied in xG. The cool thing about one team starting out by playing better in the first two games and then the other team coming back over the next three is that you can create mirrored narratives depending on your perspective.
You want to write about a Caps collapse? Here’s your evidence! You want to write about the Lightning not playing hard enough in the first two games? Here’s your evidence! But really, these charts are evidence for neither. They’re evidence that these two teams are so evenly matched that after five games, almost nothing separates them.
No matter the outcome tomorrow, game six will offer more opportunity to pick from the lazy narrative garden. Either the Caps will have completed another collapse or the Lightning will set up a repeat of the 2016 ECF. But neither of those will be true. More likely is that game six will be another close, well-played game between two deserving teams where the outcome is determined by the bounce of the puck. Because that’s how hockey tends to work this time of year.