What we learned about the NHL in March: Capitals’ eye-catching stat, awards watch, stars of the month

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With the Washington Capitals, there is one extremely eye-catching number.
Minus-30.
That’s Washington’s goal differential through 72 games. And yet, this is a team that is in the thick of the playoff race. Ahead of Friday’s Devils-Sabres game, Washington’s postseason odds stood at 61 percent.
Sometimes, the process doesn’t matter as long as a team finds a way into the playoffs. The postseason is a different animal, after all.
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But this number could carry some weight.
Washington wouldn’t be the first team to reach the playoffs despite finishing the season in the negatives in goal differential, and it won’t be the last.
It was actually pretty common in previous eras, and to worse degrees. No team tops the 1985-86 Winnipeg Jets’ minus-77. A few other teams from that same postseason weren’t far off, either: Toronto was at minus-75 and Vancouver at minus-51.
Teams from the 1970s and 1980s dominate the list of those that reached the playoffs despite being outscored on the season. But they aren’t exactly on an equal playing field compared to today’s Capitals, considering scoring trends, league size and differences in the playoffs.
Just focusing on the salary-cap era, the list shrinks to 25 teams — and none to the margins of years past. The 2011-12 Florida Panthers headline this list, with a minus-24 goal differential. That’s a number the Capitals could realistically exceed depending on how this last stretch goes and if they ultimately sneak into the playoffs.
But will this hold Washington back from doing damage in the playoffs?
Few teams in today’s game stack up to the 2011-12 Panthers or today’s Capitals. The average goal differential of the 25 teams to reach the playoffs but fall in the negatives in the cap era is minus-6.
The one common theme for those teams, regardless of whether they reached the heights of the Panthers or only narrowly fell into the negatives is that most don’t make it past Round 1. There are a few exceptions and wild cards, some stemming from slightly different playoff formats in COVID-19 years. The 2021 and 2010 Montreal Canadiens went on deep runs. The 2017 Ottawa Senators and 2020 New York Islanders fell short in the Eastern Conference final.
It helps that Washington is improving in this area. Since its playoff odds started to trend up around March 7, Washington is at a plus-2 goal differential. Some of that is thanks to the team converting on its chances more often after previously falling 32 goals below expectations and Charlie Lindgren saving 10.8 goals above expected over his past 10 games.
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Washington isn’t the only team facing this hurdle. The Flyers, who are the third seed in the Metropolitan, have a minus-12 goal differential. The Islanders, who are four points behind the Capitals, are at a minus-26.
Goal differential isn’t everything. But generally, it doesn’t bode well in the postseason, especially when a team is as deeply in the negatives as the Capitals and Islanders are.
A 3-2-1 point system wouldn’t drastically change the standings
Around the time of this column last month, I was asked whether the NHL standings would change if a 3-2-1 system was put in place, similar to the PWHL, where three points are assigned for a regulation win, two for an overtime/shootout win and one for an overtime/shootout loss.
Before Thursday night’s NHL games, there were a few shifts. But then the Maple Leafs’ regulation win reversed them. Heading into Friday night’s games, the playoff picture would look almost identical to what it currently does. There would only be three minor tweaks:
Colorado would move ahead of Dallas, thanks to its 38 regulation wins (compared to the Stars’ 35). In the Pacific, the Kings would still be holding onto third place in this point system (when they actually slipped to the second wild-card spot on Thursday night and Vegas jumped up to third place). In a 3-2-1 point system, these teams would be tied with 119 points, with the Kings’ extra regulation win giving them the edge. In reality, they’re one point behind Vegas after the Golden Knights collected two points over Winnipeg on Thursday. And Florida would jump ahead of Boston. The Bruins would see the biggest change in their standings as a result of this system.
There would be a few shifts outside of the playoff picture, too. The Devils and Sabres would each move up in the East, while the Islanders would slide a bit further. In the West, Seattle and Calgary would swap places, too.
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Just because there aren’t dramatic standing shifts doesn’t mean this system wouldn’t give a more accurate standings view. Maybe if this system was in place, there would be some tactical adjustments to push for those extra points in desperate situations (think of the Minnesota Wild pulling their goaltender in three-on-three overtime to secure their win over Nashville this month).
Josi elevates himself into awards consideration
The Nashville Predators have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past month-plus. Any conversation about Nashville goes back to its 9-2 loss to Dallas on Feb. 15, a turning point of its season.
After that loss, the Predators had a 25 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model. Since then, they’ve done nothing but solidify their chances with an 18-game point streak that came to an end on Thursday night.
It’s been a team effort through and through, with excellent defense, strong offense and reliable goaltending. Ryan O’Reilly is crushing it with Filip Forsberg and Gustav Nyquist. Ryan McDonagh has managed his heavy usage. But at the heart of this turnaround is franchise cornerstone Roman Josi.
Over Nashville’s past 19 games, Josi has helped tilt the ice in its favor with almost 60 percent of the five-on-five shot share, a plus-77 scoring chance differential, and a 65 percent expected-goals rate. The team has outscored opponents 29-12 at five-on-five over that stretch, with Josi earning a point on more than half the goals he has been on the ice for.
Josi’s all-around play — not just over this stretch but for the full season — should propel him into the Norris Trophy conversation as one of the best all-around defensemen in the league. Considering how pivotal he has been in this turnaround — to help the Predators not just be a playoff lock but also a potential first-round spoiler — he also deserves some MVP appreciation. If the Hart Trophy field weren’t so deep, he would likely be getting more hype.
Hedman is heating up at the right time
Cale Makar, Adam Fox and Quinn Hughes may be changing the definition of the “modern-day defenseman.” But like Josi, Victor Hedman is showing that his era isn’t over yet.
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The past couple of seasons have been challenging for Hedman, as the Tampa Bay Lightning have decimated their blue line. The McDonagh trade, in particular, put a lot more on his plate. And this year, Mikhail Sergachev’s injuries have only put further strain on Tampa Bay’s defense and on Hedman.
But Hedman has raised his game lately, which is exactly what this team needed from its leading defenseman down the stretch. His five-on-five play has stood out through nine games in March. Tampa Bay has earned 71 percent of the expected goals share with Hedman deployed. The Lightning have created a lot of quality offense and, more importantly considering how inconsistent their goaltending has been, they haven’t given up much, either. Hedman has helped the Lightning suppress scoring chances to the tune of 1.38 expected goals against 60 minutes, which is among the best in the league this month. In that time, the team has also outscored opponents 14-8.
All of that has contributed to an average Game Score of 1.96, which measures up as the sixth-best in the league in March behind Josi, Evan Bouchard, Mattias Ekholm, Hughes and Makar.
Every team needs the help of a supporting cast, but the Lightning’s playoff chances hinge on their core players. Hedman reaching this level is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s one this team had been missing.
Drouin is thriving in Colorado
The Jonathan Drouin Experience in Colorado got off to a shaky start. He earned just one point through his first 10 games, and the Avalanche usually lost their minutes when he was on the ice at five-on-five through the first third of the season. But Drouin has turned that around in the second half. Through 70 games, he has 46 points, the second-highest pace of his career.
Of course, it helps that Drouin has spent so much of his time alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, which also means sharing the ice with Makar and Devon Toews a lot of the time. But it’s not as simple as a quality-of-linemate boost. There are two other factors to consider: 1) He also has to keep up with these top players to produce, which he has done. And 2) He has to face shutdown opponents in this role.
Drouin hitting his stride isn’t just good for that top line but also for Colorado’s supporting cast as a whole. Going into the season, that looked like a potential weakness. Losing Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin for parts of the season only challenged the depth further. Their returns, plus a healthy Drouin and reinforcements brought in at the deadline, have rounded out this forward group behind its two stars, again making the Avalanche one of the deepest teams in the league.
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The Kings’ stingy play may not be enough
The Kings were served two pieces of bad news after falling 4-1 to the Oilers on Thursday. As a result of earning zero points and the Golden Knights notching two versus Winnipeg, Los Angeles slid down to the second wild-card spot. And despite shifting in the playoff picture for the moment, their most likely opponent for Round 1 is still Edmonton.
After looking like contenders to open the season, the Kings started to trail off defensively in late December. Their rush defense sunk and their goalies were challenged by heftier workload, which led to a coaching change.
It took a little time for the Kings to rebound, but their back end has looked a lot better in March. Through 13 games at five-on-five, Los Angeles has conceded just 2.09 expected goals against per 60 minutes, good for second in the league behind Minnesota. And their goalies have responded with a collective 7.2 goals saved above expected.
The big question is whether that will be enough against a team with as much firepower as the Oilers. The Kings’ five-on-five offense has been worse since the coaching change, and their power play’s offensive creation is lacking. Trying to contain Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid with a 1-3-1 system can only get a team so far if it can’t also force the Oilers to play defense against them. With 10 games to go, that has to be the Kings’ top focus.
Oettinger’s inconsistent season continues
Dallas goalie Jake Oettinger was excellent against the Canucks on Thursday, saving 2.18 goals above expected for his fourth-best performance of the season. But heading into that matchup, his play in March had stood out for all the wrong reasons. Through his first nine appearances of the month, he had allowed almost six more goals than expected. Before Thursday night’s matchups, that stood as the fourth-worst in the league, ahead of only John Gibson, Alex Lyon and Dan Vladar.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Oettinger — below his usual standards. He’s far from the only high-end goalie to struggle. Even two of the best goalies in the league, Connor Hellebuyck and Jacob Markstrom, have looked more human in March.
What helps Oettinger is that he’s had a lot of team support. The core keeps on clicking, Wyatt Johnston is breaking out and Chris Tanev has added stability to the back end. But it’s only going to get more challenging from here. The Stars are battling for the top seed and are going to have a tough first-round opponent no matter how the standings shake out. So, it would help to have the Oettinger who made his playoff debut with a bang against the Flames in 2022 instead of the goalie who stumbled through two rounds last year. At this rate, the latter looks more likely, but sometimes it’s just a matter of getting hot at the right time.
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Maybe Thursday night’s game was the start of an upward trend.
Stars of the Month
Nathan MacKinnon’s 19-game point streak and 35-home-game point streak(!) may have come to an end on Thursday, but the forward’s outright dominant play still has been highlighted. In his past 12 games, he’s put up nine goals and 23 points. That’s a point on 77 percent of the goals scored while he has been on the ice. Technically, he may only have two game-winners over this stretch, but he’s been the difference for his team on numerous occasions. Just take Colorado’s win over Pittsburgh on March 24, when his three-point effort helped fuel a comeback after trailing 4-0.
The second star was a close call between Josi and Filip Forsberg, but we’ll give the Predators’ leading forward the spotlight this time. Forsberg has been outstanding throughout Nashville’s turnaround. In March, specifically, he has scored 12 goals in 12 games and earned 22 points. The Predators control play in his minutes with 65 percent of the expected goals share, and his ability to generate offense in transition and pepper goalies with his dangerous shot has a lot to do with it.
A number of other players have been pushing for our attention in March. Nikita Kucherov and McDavid are playing like MVPs, while Kirill Kaprizov and Artemi Panarin keep showing their star power. In goal, Karel Vejmelka and Lindgren have been difference-makers.
But the third star of the month goes to Jake Guentzel, who is crushing it with his new team. Along with having 12 points in 10 games, the Hurricanes have outscored opponents 19-1 in his minutes. At five-on-five, he’s helped tilt the ice with a plus-60 shot-attempt differential, plus-38 scoring-chance edge and almost 68 percent of the expected goals share. Guentzel is showing any doubters just how capable he is away from Sidney Crosby’s wing and why he was the best player on the market at the deadline.
(Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, HockeyStatCards, AllThreeZones, and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.)
(Top photo of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

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