On The Chess Match between Adam Oates and John Tortorella

Greg Fiume

With two games in the books, how has each bench boss deployed his troops?

Line matching is one of those things that most people don't pay a whole lot of attention to until the playoffs start. That's because the growing familiarity between two teams is what powers the chess match going on behind the benches, and the importance of every maneuver is magnified by the stakes of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And though there was familiarity aplenty between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers before the puck dropped on this one, a few more variables have been added to the equation since last year.

So with games one and two gone into the books in favor of the good guys, let's take a look at how Adam Oates and John Tortorella have moved their pieces, keeping in mind that Oates had the benefit of last change in his pocket.

Below, the Rangers top-12 forwards are ordered by line, and we can see the top-two Caps each of those Blueshirts has faced (in terms of ice time):

[Data captured from Behind the Net and NHL.com]

NYR Forward

Even Strength TOI

Opponent1

TOI % vs OPP1

Opponent2

TOI % vs OPP2

Rick Nash

36:25

Mike Green

59.7

Karl Alzner

53.4

Brad Richards

33:48

Mike Green

70.0

Karl Alzner

65.0

Mats Zucarello

31:42

Mike Green

69.2

Karl Alzner

64.6

Ryan Callahan

32:53

John Erskine

74.9

John Carlson

71.5

Derek Stepan

32:45

John Erskine

74.6

John Carlson

70.9

Carl Hagelin

29:54

John Erskine

57.8

John Carlson

56.1

Taylor Pyatt

24:06

Jack Hillen

54.8

Steve Oleksy

54.4

Derick Brassard

23:48

Jack Hillen

68.3

Steve Oleksy

65.5

Derek Dorsett

15:02

Steve Oleksy

76.9

Jack Hillen

75.8

Aaron Asham

12:45

Jack Hillen

45.5

Steve Oleksy

44.8

Brian Boyle

10:27

Steve Oleksy

36.5

Mike Green

36.1

Chris Kreider

8:23

Jack Hillen

65.0

Steve Oleksy

62.6

Pretty straightforward stuff here. Oates wants Alzner and Green out against the Nash line, Carlson and Erskine out against the Stepan line, and then he uses his checking lines and the Oleksy/Hillen pairing to take care of the rest.

Most notable in these numbers is that Rick Nash is only spending between 55-60% of his ice time against Oates's pairing of choice, whereas his linemates are seeing nearly 10% more, which means that Nash is snatching up shifts with other lines when he gets the chance.. We wondered earlier this season who Adam Oates's top defenseman was. Based on games one and two— and if you believe that the Nash/Richards line is the Rangers' top line right now, which it is as measured by time on ice and, uh, salary— it seems like that distinction belongs to Karl Alzner. If you believe that the Stepan line is Torts' heaviest artillery, then John Carlson has top D honors. Whatever it is, it's kind of nice having the flexibility to shut down both lines, yeah?

It's evident that Tortorella wants to get his superstar some new looks, and indeed it was John Carlson he blew by with three minutes left in the third on Saturday afternoon, before firing one off the iron. Wielding last change in games three and four, expect Nash to get away from Alzner and Green some more.

After Game 2, I asked Steve Oleksy whether he anticipated seeing different matchups in Madison Square Garden.

"It'll happen," he said. "Throughout the year I've played against quite a few guys on that team. Top line, first, second, third, fourth, it doesn't really matter who's out there. You have to be ready, you have to be focused, and you've got to shut them down."

Let's take a look at how Adam Oates sent out his forwards against the Ranger defense:

WSH Forward

Even Strength TOI

Opponent1

TOI% vs Opp1

Opponent2

TOI% vs Opp2

Troy Brouwer

31:41

Anton Stralman

44.2

Michael Del Zotto

38.8

Mike Ribeiro

29:56

Anton Stralman

44.6

Michael Del Zotto

40.2

Martin Erat

28:55

Anton Stralman

44.6

Michael Del Zotto

39.5

Nicklas Backstrom

29:51

Ryan McDonagh

77.0

Dan Girardi

69.1

Alex Ovechkin

29:11

Ryan McDonagh

74.3

Dan Girardi

66.6

Marcus Johansson

27:55

Ryan McDonagh

81.8

Dan Girardi

73.5

Jason Chimera

27:54

Michael Del Zotto

48.7

Steve Eminger

39.7

Mathieu Perreault

27:08

Michael Del Zotto

48.0

Steve Eminger

41.4

Eric Fehr

25:16

Michael Del Zotto

48.4

Steve Eminger

42.4

Joel Ward

17:07

John Moore

55.8

Anton Stralman

52.3

Matt Hendricks

16:17

Anton Stralman

53.7

John Moore

53.5

Jay Beagle

14:48

John Moore

55.3

Anton Stralman

51.6

First of all, it's worth pointing out that John Tortorella is sans Marc Staal, who averaged over 25 minutes of ice per game during last year's playoffs, and went head to head with the Backstrom line.

Speaking of the Caps' first line, let's take a look. Despite Oates' having last change, the tandem of McDonagh and Girardi are almost always on the ice with the big guns. Adam Oates hasn't made the same effort as John Tortorella to get his superstar different looks. And why should he? The first line is dominating.

In terms of possession, the Chimera/Perreault/Fehr line has been second best, going against Michael Del Zotto and Steve Eminger. Del Zotto, however, has also been tasked with taking on the Caps second line of Brouwer/Ribeiro/Erat, who after two games lead the team's forwards in even strength minutes played.

That trio has been a possession sinkhole, however, and if they're going to continue eating up major minutes, Adam Oates might want to devise a way to get his second line away from Anton Stralman (and maybe think about giving them a few more looks in the offensive zone).

But Troy Brouwer doesn't anticipate much difference tonight. "It's probably going to be the same," he told me. "I'm assuming Girardi and McDonagh are always going to be against Ovi and Nicky, and the other guys will be against Del Zotto and Stralman, or however they configure their D."

Indeed, through two games it was John Tortorella who showed a greater inclination to shuffle his deck, and with Adam Oates taking a 2-0 series lead into New York, and losing the privilege of last change, the onus for variance will presumably remain with ol' Torts.

But don't think for a moment that Adam Oates, like an assassin slinking in the shadows, doesn't know exactly when to strike.

After the Caps killed off an overtime delay of game penalty by Steve Oleksy, they established possession in the Rangers zone, and reeled off a few dominant shifts, punctuated by an icing call, and then a freezing of the puck by Henrik Lundqvist. Amidst this, Tortorella anticipated the Backstrom line getting an offensive zone start, and put Girardi/McDonagh on the ice.

Oates responded by sending out the Perreault line. By the time that shift ended, Girardi and McDonagh were gassed, and Ovechkin and company were getting onto the ice. Tortorella took Girardi off the ice, but kept McDonagh on, who when play resumed, ended his shift of an exhausting 3:04 by throwing the puck over the glass. You know where it goes from here.

Advantage: Oates.

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