May 7, 2012; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers center Brad Richards (19) takes a shot on goal as Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) defends with goalie Braden Holtby (70) during the second period in game five of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
Alex Ovechkin and Brad Richards are two of the NHL's highest-paid players, compensated handsomely to produce, lead and carry their respective teams towards the game's ultimate goal. Through the first six games of their Eastern Conference Semifinal match-up, Ovechkin has scored three goals (including the Game 2 game-winner) and added an assist; Richards has tallied three goals (including the Game 5 game-tying goal) and added two helpers (including the primary assist on the triple-overtime game-winner in Game 3).
But how each has been deployed and performed so far during the series gives a glimpse into what we can expect in tomorrow night's pivotal Game 7. Since the game will be played in New York and thus will afford Rangers bench boss John Tortorella the last line change, he'll be able to get the match-ups he wants on the ice more often than not. What does that mean for the Capitals? Let's take a look.
In the three games in Washington - where Dale Hunter was in a better position to line-match - the Richards line was fed a steady diet of Troy Brouwer, Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle (Joel Ward in Game 6) up front and Karl Alzner and John Carlson on the blueline (to check head-to-head time at five-on-five, click here and change the "6" in the URL for the game you want). Each of those players was on the ice for between two-thirds and three-quarters of Richards' even-strength minutes. The result? Richards had one assist (granted, it was a biggie - that triple OT apple) and an average Corsi rating of +2 per game. Richards was essentially contained.
In New York, however, it's been a bit of a different story. Richards has still faced Carlson and Alzner the most among Caps' defensemen, but the frequency drops from around two-third of the time to a bit over half. Up front, no Caps forward has been on for more than one-third of Richards' minutes, with each of the Caps' top nine forwards in that one-quarter to one-third range. The result here? A couple of even-strength goals and an average Corsi of +11 per game. Not nearly as contained.
For Ovechkin, the splits are somewhat more stark. In D.C., Hunter put Ovechkin out against the Derek Stepan-Brian Boyle-Ruslan Fedotenko line more than 40% of the time, and ended up seeing Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh on the blueline for 76% and 65% of his captain's even-strength minutes, respectively. At home, Ovechkin had an even-strength goal, but bad possession numbers (in part due to getting killed there in Game 6; he was even over Games 3 and 4).
At Madison Square Garden, it's been a different trio of forwards every night leading the way against Ovechkin (Girardi and McDonagh have been a constant on the blueline). In Game 1, it was Chris Kreider, Stepan and Ryan Callahan (though not overwhelmingly - around 40%). In Game 2, it was Richards, Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin (in the 43-51% range). And in Game 5, it was Boyle, Callahan and Artem Anisimov (in the 45-50%) range. In other words, Tortorella isn't too concerned with matching Ovechkin's line with any forwards in particular, and who can blame him - Ovi has just one even-strength point (an assist) in the three games in New York and has posted a Corsi of -9 per game; he's been a non-factor at even-strength in Gotham.
The bottom line here is that, unsurprisingly, Brad Richards has been more effective where his coach can get him away from the Caps' checking line; Alex Ovechkin has been less effective where his coach can't get him in favorable positions more frequently. It will take a team effort, especially among the forwards, to shut down the Richards line in Game 7. But here's the thing - in three games in New York, both Richards and Ovechkin have been on the ice for two even-strength goals-for and two against. If Ovechkin's line can continue to play Richards' to a standstill (or better) on the scoreboard at evens, the Caps have to like their chances in the game. We'll find out soon enough.