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Math says Capitals will have tough time winning Stanley Cup again

April 10, 2019

It’s an emotional time of year for local hockey fans as the Washington Capitals embark on their Stanley Cup defense, which starts Thursday at 7:30 with Game 1 of their first-round series at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.

But forget, for a moment, the intangibles the Capitals might carry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs like team chemistry, so-called momentum or playoff experience. What does the cold, hard math say about their chances to repeat as Cup champions?

It’s questions like that which Micah Blake McCurdy sets out to answer each year with his NHL predictive models.

McCurdy, who has a doctorate in mathematics, runs the website Hockey Viz, where he uses his own tailor-made model and millions of computer simulations to forecast NHL games in the regular season and playoffs.

Capitals fans will want to heed McCurdy, whose model last postseason gave Washington the second-best chance in the league to win the Cup. That’s just not the case this time around.

“I don’t see anything unusual about the Caps’ chances this year, which is to say they’re not nearly as good as last year,” McCurdy said. “I have them at approximately 7 percent to win the Cup this year, which is very close to what you’d expect if they were an average-quality playoff team.”

McCurdy improves upon his model year after year he calls this year’s version “Magnus,” while last year’s was “Edgar” but generally they are based on team’s shot rates, penalty rates and goaltender performance, for starters. He simulates every game 10,000 times to calculate each team’s probability.

With Magnus, McCurdy said, his goal was to isolate a player’s individual talent from the teammates he skates with. He wants to add coaching effects to next year’s system.

By Wednesday morning when McCurdy published his first “Stanley Cup chances” graphic of the postseason, Washington’s number had rounded down to 6 percent. The Dallas Stars, a wild card team in the West, surprisingly came out with the Magnus model’s best chances at 12 percent, owing much to the strength of goaltender Ben Bishop.

Behind them, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning were assigned an 11 percent chance to hoist the Cup.

“It’s one of those things where every approach to hockey, if you’re just watching teams play and making your guesses or if you’re writing down analytics no matter how complicated, you’re going to get the same answer which is that Tampa’s a lot better than the other teams,” McCurdy said.

The Capitals could find themselves fighting Tampa Bay in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, but don’t expect Washington to breeze through the first round, either. McCurdy’s model spat out matching 50 percent probabilities for both Washington and Carolina to win their first-round series.

“Within sort of nerdy circles, it’s become a running joke that the nerds always expect the Carolina Hurricanes to be good,” McCurdy said. “So the surprise is not that they did better than expected, the surprise is that they actually did as well as expected for once.”

McCurdy finds the Washington-Carolina matchup fascinating the Hurricanes’ offensive style is to put a high quantity of shots on goal from pretty much anywhere on the ice, continuously regaining the puck off rebounds and shooting again. He sees the Capitals as the opposite, generating fewer shots but relying on Alex Ovechkin and a stable of talented shooters to find the right spots.

According to the website Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes led the league with 900 high-danger scoring chances at even strength, while the Capitals allowed the second-most high-danger chances this season. That strength-versus-weakness could spell trouble for Washington, which is also missing top-four defenseman Michal Kempny.

Elsewhere around the landscape, other analysts are lukewarm about Washington as well. TSN hockey analytics writer Travis Yost picked the Capitals to win the first-round series in seven games, but warned not to count Carolina out.

“One of the most effective ways of neutralizing teams with (Washington’s) talent is to keep the puck off of their sticks, and no team has been better at doing that than Rod Brind’Amour’s club,” he wrote.