February 5, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) battle with Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) for the puck in the second period at Verizon Center. The Bruins won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
The playoffs are not about regular season records. In the playoffs, anything can happen, but how the teams match up with each other tends to play a significant role in what that "anything" might be, and the game-within-the-game tends to come to the forefront over the course of a series. So let's take a look at how the match-ups will likely play out, where the Caps might have problems, and which Bruins they may be able to exploit.
Every coach has their own preference when it comes to line-matching. Some coaches match defensive pairs to opposing forward lines (like the New York Rangers), some teams match based on where the faceoff is, playing certain players in the offensive zone and others in the defensive zone (Vancouver Canucks), and others match forward lines against forward lines (the New Jersey Devils). Claude Julien seems to take a bit of a hybrid approach, leaning toward matching his top defensive pair and generally rolling the forward lines, though with a bit of a preference for matching forwards by zones (this should come as no shock when they have a Norris Trophy winner on their defensive corps and a Selke caliber forward up front). Zdeno Chara gets the toughest competition among any Bruins player, and it's not really close. He also tends to start a lot in the defensive zone.
However, neither his quality of competition nor his zone start numbers are so extreme as to put him near the top of the league in either category. Chara's numbers may be diluted because Julien also likes to use Chara in offensive situations, as he's one of the leading defensive scorers in the league. Chara is the easiest Bruins player to predict: he'll be out against Alex Ovechkin as much as possible. And given Dale Hunter's "hard line matching" style, it's likely that Chara will be out for virtually every one of Ovechkin's shifts over the course of the series. Follow along after the jump for a closer look at how the Bruins use their D, and then we'll look at the forwards.
For most of the season, Johnny Boychuk has been Chara's defensive partner. Over the last ten games, however, the Bruins have used Dennis Seidenberg alongside Chara much more often. After the top pair, a formidable pair regardless of Chara's partner (but much stronger with Seidenberg), the Bruins' defense becomes much less intimidating - both from a physical standpoint and a talent standpoint. The quality of competition each defenseman faces drops drastically after Chara, indicating Julien doesn't have a ton of faith in using any one guy in the difficult situations.
The following chart shows the quality of competition each of the Bruins' defenders faced at even strength and offensive zone start percentage, as well as their results, both in terms of Corsi and in terms of goals scored (minimum 20 games played):
|Player||TOI/60||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi Rel||Corsi On||GF/60||GA/60||OZ Start%|
Corsi On measures shots directed at net by either team when a player is on the ice. Corsi Rel is the measure of a player's Corsi relative to their teammates. It's the difference of their Corsi On and their Corsi Off. Corsi Rel QoC represents the Corsi Rel of the opponents the player faced over the course of the season. Zone start percentage is the percentage of non-neutral zone faceoffs a player is on the ice for in the offensive zone. GF/60 and GA/60 represent the number of goals scored for the player's team and goals scored against the player's team for every 60 minutes a player is on ice, respectively.
For you more visual types, here's how it looks graphically (black represents a positive Corsi Rel, yellow a negative, and the size of the bubble correlates to how positive/negative that Corsi Rel is):
Based on these numbers, a few things stand out. The first notable takeaway is that Seidenberg is a solid defenseman, but he's not a guy that is going to create a real shutdown pair on his own. He played decent competition, but not great, and his results were just about a standstill compared to his teammates. Julien chose to use him more on offense than on defense, but in raw terms that number is probably not a huge difference over the course of a game. If Seidenberg is the second defenseman on the Chara pair, that pair will be incredibly difficult to score against, but if Seidenberg is the shutdown player on a second pair then the Caps should be able to create some scoring chances.
Moving on down the blue line, we see that Greg Zanon does a decent job against mediocre competition, but he's not the shutdown guy he was when he was younger. Expect to see Zanon on the ice when the Caps have an offensive zone faceoff but neither of the top two lines are on the ice. He may see some time against Semin's line, but the negative Corsi Rel QoC indicates he isn't spending a whole lot of time against true scoring lines.
The guy that looks to be the most vulnerable is Andrew Ference. He plays mediocre-to-poor competition, and his results aren't great. In raw terms, he has a negative Corsi, meaning the opposition is taking more shots than the Bruins are when he's on the ice. As you can see by the fact that most of the Bruins D have positive Corsi On, Boston is a good team that generally out-shoots their opponents. So seeing Ferrence as a negative Corsi, and really not even close to even, indicates he's the guy who will get regular minutes that the Caps want to expose. His Corsi Rel indicates just how far below the performance of his teammates he's played, and his OZ% is exactly 50%, so there's no reason to think that there's any context which would explain his poor performance. When Ference is on the ice, the Caps have to make some hay.
Joe Corvo has positive Corsi On and Corsi Rel, but he's being put on the ice against bad competition and more frequently in the offensive zone. His positive numbers really aren't that impressive given his cushy usage. With Adam McQuaid still out from the hit he took from Jason Chimera, the Bruins are going to have to play Corvo... unless they want to play Mike Mottau, who has been a disaster any way you look at it. Mottau will be the 7th defenseman and only play in case of injury, or in case Corvo is even worse than Caps fans remember him being.
One more interesting note about Corvo. In the last ten games his most common partner has been Zanon. Given that they have diametrically opposite zone starts, it's curious to see how Julien uses them. My guess would be that when they play together it will be a shift that starts on the fly, and then Zanon will take shifts starting in the D zone with either Chara or Seidenberg, and Corvo will take the corresponding O zone shifts with Chara or Seidenberg. It's something to watch for, and with the depleted Bruins blueline we can only hope Julien has to use Corvo more than he has been over the last few weeks.
Now let's take a look at the forwards.
The Bruins look to have a lot of variation in the way they use their forwards. Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron are the most commonly-used trio, both over the course of the season and in the last 10 games. However, Bergeron and Marchand face the toughest competition of all forwards (though neither face even as tough competition as Boychuk), while Seguin faces the 6th toughest competition; Seguin also has a 55% OZ start, much higher than Marchand (52%) and Bergeron (47.6%). That all indicates that Julien is taking Seguin off the Bergeron line during tough defensive assignments.
Let's look at the competition, zone starts, and results for the Bruins forwards, as we did with the defensemen:
|Player||TOI/60||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi Rel||Corsi On||GF/60||GA/60||OZ Start%|
And in pretty chart form:
Rich Peverley seems to be a jack of all trades for the Bruins, at times taking Seguin's spot in the defensive situations while also spending time with Milan Lucic and David Krejci or Chris Kelly and Benoit Pouliot on the third line. Overall, Peverley's competition has been relatively tough compared to the rest of the Boston forwards, and his results are tough to make much of. His Corsi results aren't great, as relatively he's minus compared to the team and he's only a moderate plus overall, but his goal differential is pretty good. Considering how many lines he's played with, there's a lot of noise there so it's tough to conclude anything other than the fact that Peverley isn't an engine for any of the lines - which is something common sense would already dictate.
The thing that stands out the most from these numbers is that Julien seems comfortable rolling the top 3 lines. The quality of competition separation among the top three lines is nothing like what you see with the defensemen, so it doesn't look like Julien has too much concern for the opposition when it comes to matching the forwards. He gets his top guys on the ice as often as possible, with Bergeron and Marchand getting a bit of a disadvantage with the tough assignments. The third line, except for Chris Kelly, does get a heavy dose of offensive zone starts, so it appears as though the Bruins tend to match the forwards by zone when you look across the lines.
Julien essentially hides the fourth line, playing them against the weakest competition available. Lucic, Seguin, and Krejci all get a higher percent of offensive zone starts. If Karl Alzner and John Carlson (or whichever Caps' blueline plays with Alzner) are matched by zone starts, they'll see a lot of the Krejci/Lucic line; if they are matched against talent, they'll see a lot of Bergeron and Marchand. Based on how the Caps used Alzner against the Bruins in the regular season, it looks like he'll get more ice against the Krejci/Lucic line than the Bergeron/Marchand line. All four games were coached by Dale Hunter, and in 3 of the 4 games Alzner was matched predominantly against Krejci/Lucic (with the loan game he wasn't matched against that line coming in the lone Caps loss to the Bruins; Head-to-Head charts for Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4.). The match-up that Alzner sees, and how well he handles it (or, more accurately, how well his partner handles it), will be one of the most interesting, and important, things to watch from a Caps perspective this series.
One final aspect to take note of in regards to Boston's forwards is the fact that Krejci is a very good player, but his results this year have been less than stellar despite playing mediocre competition and getting relatively favorable zone starts. For such a talented offensive player, you'd think he'd be able to do more with those minutes, as he's spent most of his time with Lucic and a variety of different players on the other wing. Krejci does suffer from an on-ice save percentage of .887, but it's still startling to see such a good player, on a good team, with a negative on-ice goal differential.
It looks like the top three lines for the Caps are going to have to be prepared to play against any of Boston's top three lines, and the 4th lines will see each other most of the time they are on the ice. The Bruins have two very strong lines (even stronger if Nathan Horton hadn't gotten another concussion), but the third line is vulnerable. There will be quite a bit of power versus power in this series, so the Caps top two lines had better be up for the challenge.
In sum, the Bruins are going to heavily match their defense, with Ovechkin playing against Chara all game every game. The Bruins will roll their forwards, confident in the two-way play of their top-9 guys. As far as the skaters go, the three most important match-ups seem to be as follows: Ovechkin against Chara, Alzner against whichever line he faces, and the battle of the second lines. The second line battle could spell trouble for the Caps. The 2C problem has been around as long as Ovechkin has, and it could once again rear it's head this series. Given the talent the Bruins have on the second line, it makes sense to play Brooks Laich at whichever top-6 center position Nicklas Backstrom isn't playing. His offensive contributions as 2C haven't been great in the times he's spent at that position, but he'll be defensively reliable and may be able to allow the Alex on his wing to spend some time in the offensive zone.
If the Caps win two of those three battles and the goaltending is anything close to even, the Caps should win the series. If not... well, Braden Holtby better be great.