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Why can't the Caps win at home?

Why can't the Caps win at home?

As the old expression goes, a series doesn’t start until a road team loses.

Wait, that’s not it. Shouldn’t that be until a “home” team loses?

Well, it used to be, but that just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Washington Capitals jumped out to a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning with two wins in Florida. When they returned home, where they are hypothetically supposed to have the greater advantage, they lost both Game 3 and Game 4 and now find themselves in a tied series.

This is not the first time this postseason the Caps have struggled at home. Washington is now only 3-5 at Capital One Arena in the playoffs, but 7-1 on the road.

What gives?

Well, first it should be noted that this is a trend across the NHL and not just in Washington. Including the Caps’ loss at home on Thursday, the home team has gone only 34-39 in the postseason.

“It doesn’t matter this time of year if you’re home or away,” Tom Wilson said following Game 4. “Every game is huge. The emotion’s going to be there.”

Home ice does not seem to mean as much as it once did. Having said that, however, of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, the Caps are the only team with a losing record at home. So even if you establish that home ice is not a major factor, the Caps have still been the worst at home of the remaining teams.

You can talk about how there is less pressure on the road, how it can be better for a player to get away from the family during the playoffs and how teams can rally around an ‘us against the world’ mentality, but that is true every single year. That does not explain why they have had so much trouble this year in particular on home ice.

Let’s compare some of the stats to see if we can break down exactly where the problem is.

At home: 8 games played, 3.25 goals per game (26 total goals), 3.38 goals against per game (27 total goals), 3.88 penalties drawn per game, 25.8-percent power play, 3.75 penalties taken per game, 70.0-percent penalty kill.

On the road: 8 games played, 3.75 goals per game (30 total goals), 2.13 goals against per game (17 total goals), 3.13 penalties drawn per game, 32.0-percent power play, 3.38 penalties taken per game, 77.8-percent penalty kill.

The three most glaring stats that jump out are goals against per game, the power play and the penalty kill, all of which are dramatically better on the road.

With home playoff records being a topic of conversation across the NHL, former player Martin St. Louis made headlines with his recent take:

There may be something to that, but that does not explain the situation for Washington given their special teams success away from Capital One Arena. Line matching does not matter when it comes to the power play and the penalty kill.

As unsatisfying as it may be, the answer is that there is no clear answer for why the Caps have struggled at home. If there was, the team would fix it.

Of the five games they lost in Washington, they were the better team in Game 1 and Game 2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Braden Holtby did not start either of those games. They were the better team in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins for all but a five-minute stretch in which the Penguins scored three goals. And they were the better team in Game 4 on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 3 against the Lightning was Washington’s worst home game of the postseason, but, for the most part, the Caps have actually played pretty well on home ice. The results just have not been there.

Looking at each game, it would seem that their home record is more of an anomaly than anything else. Perhaps the real question is not why they have struggled at home, but why have they been so good on the road?

“We’ve put together some pretty darn good games at home that we just couldn’t find those little plays,” John Carlson said, “The big moments that we didn’t take advantage of the in certain situations and that’s why our record is what is as at home and away.”

If you are looking for solace, however, two of the final three games of the Eastern Conference Final will be played on the road and, should Washington advance to the Stanley Cup Final, the winner of the Western Conference will have home ice.

To win the series and the Stanley Cup from this point, the Caps will need to have more success on the road than at home. Based on how they have played, that is probably fine by them.

“That’s our focus next game on the road where we have had a lot of success,” Carlson said. “We believe in here.”

More Caps News:

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals


John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

On Friday, the Capitals shipped out Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to clear space on the salary cap for John Carlson's massive contract extension.

On Sunday night, Carlson signed on the dotted the line. 

The 28-year-old became the latest core Cap to sign a long-term deal, inking an eight-year extension that will carry an $8 million average salary. 

His cap hit is now the second highest on the team—behind Ovechkin’s $9.538 million charge and just ahead of Kuznetsov’s $7.8 million hit.

With Carlson locked up, the defending Stanley Cup champion now has the majority of its core signed through at least the 2019-20 season. Among the players with at least two years remaining on their deals are forwards Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nickas Backstrom and Lars Eller, defensemen Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Braden Holtby.

The Carlson news did not come as a surprise.

The Caps wanted to keep him. Carlson, who makes his offseason home in Washington, wanted to stay with the club that drafted him 27th overall in 2008. And on Friday night in Dallas, GM Brian MacLellan all but guaranteed that a deal was going to happen when he said, “We’re close and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”

It ended up taking a little more than 24 hours, but in the end MacLellan got his D-man.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said MacLellan in a statement on Sunday. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime.”

Indeed, Carlson notched a career-high 15 goals and 53 assists last season, and his 68 points led all NHL defensemen. He also became the eighth defensemen in Caps’ history to record 60 points in a season and the first since Mike Green accomplished the feat in 2009-10. Meanwhile, Carlson’s average ice time (24:47) also marked a career high.

“As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams,” MacLellan added. “We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

With Carlson under contract, the Caps now have a little more than $13 million in cap space underneath the $79.5 million ceiling, according to Michal Kempny, Jay Beagle, Alex Chiasson and Jakub Jerabek are all unrestricted free agents, while Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Travis Boyd and Madison Bowey are restricted free agents.

Carlson’s also signing kicks off a big week for MacLellan.

In addition to negotiating with the free agents he hopes to retain, he’s expected to have a formal interview with associate coach Todd Reirden, who is the leading candidate to replace Barry Trotz as head coach.

So buckle up, there figure to be a few more important announcements in the coming days.


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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson


Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.