Leading up to the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals battle between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins we took a look at various aspects of the series, from individual players to special teams to the specific match-ups we could expect to see. In that post, we noted that there were three match-ups that would likely decide the series:
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.
So far, as you'd expect in a 7 game series, these match-ups have been incredibly close. The Caps can only claim a real advantage in one of these three match-ups, and the winner of the other two match-ups will likely be decided tonight... in favor of the winner of this series.
Let's start with the good news: one of these three match-ups has been pretty well dominated by the Caps. If you've watched this series at all it's probably not that surprising that the match-up in question is Karl Alzner against the Bruins' top line (whatever iteration it may take on any given game). Alzner and his partner, John Carlson, have only been on for two even strength goals against. The only difference between their performance was Carlson being on the ice for a four-on-four goal that hit Braden Holtby in the glove before squeaking past him and into the net. One of the goals that the duo was on the ice for together at five-a-side was an incredible deflection from Rich Peverley, one that saw the puck bounce off the ice before tucking itself neatly inside the post; the Bruins won a faceoff and made quick work of it. The other was the Andrew Ference goal that was the result of a rebound that was cashed in by the second trailer, both D had their man covered. It's hard to blame either of the Caps top Dmen for either goal. Other than that, they've straight up locked it down.
In case you think that Alzner has just gotten lucky to have only been on the ice for one even-strength goal, consider that his greatness has singlehandedly broken advanced stats (...may be hyperbole). Because if you look at the Behind the Net page for the Caps defensemen in the playoffs, something very strange stands out: Alzner and Carlson are succeeding because they are playing by far the weakest competition the Bruins have to offer. Oh... well I guess that explains the one goal against when they are on the ice. Moving on.
It's unlikely that even the most ardent advanced stats supporter would say that Alzner and Carlson have faced weak competition (although you never know). So what's going on?
Small sample size aside, what's going on is that the strong play of Alzner and Carlson, combined with the not nearly as strong play of the other Caps defense, is actually suppressing the duo's quality of competition metrics. The top pair for the Caps has prevented shots so well while they are on the ice that the Bruins they are facing simply aren't able to pad their Corsi numbers; meanwhile, the Bruins that don't face Alzner and Carlson are able to rack up shot attempts against the Caps' second and third pairs, increasing the "disadvantage" the Bruins top line sees in terms of Corsi differential (the primary method of measuring quality of competition). So by holding their assignments back, and because of the inability of the other two defensive pairs to do the same thing, Alzner and Carlson may appear to be facing the weakest competition of the team when in fact the opposite is likely true.
If you're still not convinced, look at the head-to-head shift charts from games 1-6. In every game the forward line Alzner and Carlson faced most was made up of some combination of Patrice Bergeron, Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, and David Krejci (and their second most frequent opponent is anyone else from the Bruins top-six forwards). Claude Julien has mixed his lines up a little bit, but it's clear that every game Alzner and Carlson are getting a heavy dose of the Bruins skill players. And they are getting offensive zone starts in the mid-to-low 30% range. And they are doing a much, much better job than anyone else on the Caps.
The next match-up we highlighted before the series began was the battle of the second lines. As expected, Nicklas Backstrom has seen a ton of the Bruins' top six forwards and second defensive pair, Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk. Given the depth advantage the Bruins have, it's been imperative for Backstrom's line to produce for the Caps, and at first glance it appears as though that's what has happened. Backstrom has been on-ice for four even strength goals, tied for the team lead, is second in on-ice goal differential per 60, and is the only Caps player with a positive Corsi for the series. Yes, seriously. You'll also notice Jason Chimera is represented well in several of those metrics, a good sign for the second line. The only blemish would seem to be Alexander Semin, who has come through on the power play with a couple of goals but has some pretty brutal even strength metrics.
And yet while these numbers are generally favorable for Backstrom and the second line, it's impossible to overlook the two glaring errors in game 6. On the third Bruins' goal, Backstrom simply stopped skating on the backcheck and let Andrew Ference, the Bruins defenseman we thought would be most exploitable by the second line, beat him to the net, cashing in on a rebound that had sat loose in the slot long enough for Caps fans everywhere to scream, drink a [beverage of choice] and then scream some more. (Er, maybe that was just me.) Point remains, he quit moving his feet and a defenseman that isn't noted for speed or scoring was able to outrace him for a loose puck and pick up a goal on a rebound.
Fast-forward to overtime of the same game and there was Backstrom again, this time with an uncharacteristic turnover that led directly to Tyler Seguin's game winning goal. In fact, each of the last two goals the Bruins scored in a game in which the Caps had a chance to close out the series on home ice were scored against the second line following sloppy play and mental errors. Considering that game six was the only game in which the Caps had the better of the offensive chances, one can only hope that the Caps don't spend all summer thinking about those missed opportunities. The good news is there's one game to make up for it, and if Backstrom can bring his A-game then the Caps will have a good chance to win. (And today both our fearless leader and Alan May said they like Nick Backstrom as the difference-maker for the Caps.)
Of course, there's also one more match-up left to look at, the marquee match-up in the series: Alex Ovechkin vs. Zdeno Chara.
There's no question this was the match-up to watch from the minute this series was set, and so far it hasn't disappointed - with no clear winner emerging. On the one hand, Ovechkin has been kept relatively quiet, held to just two goals; on the other hand, he's tied for the series lead with five points... so he's still making some noise. Obviously Caps fans would love to see more from Ovechkin (like hitting an open net instead of just hitting Chara and Dennis Seidenberg), but he's still produced as much as anyone in the series, and it's tough to ask much more than that.
From the Boston side of it, while he's kept Ovechkin somewhat in check Chara has also been on the ice for just three even strength goals-for compared to four even strength goals-against - and has flat out looked slow on three of those four. On Ovechkin's first goal Brooks Laich flipped the puck high in the air and let Ovechkin chase it down, a footrace in which Chara never really stood much of a chance, and Seidenberg couldn't cover for him. Then there was Laich's breakaway goal in which Chara lost track of Laich, and then a combination of a poor angle and not enough speed allowed Laich all the time he needed to deke Tim Thomas and bank a shot in off the post. And then in game six, Nicklas Backstrom came streaking down the wing with Jason Chimera flying down the other wing. Chara looked like a statue in the slot and Chimera ended up tying the game when Chara couldn't swat Backstrom's sauce out of mid-air.
All of that sounds great to Caps fans, and a little tough for Bruins fans to take (I'd suspect). Of course, Chara also is third in the series in shots on goal (behind Ovechkin and Seguin), and he has that little "game winning goal" thing in his favor (thanks again, Roman Hamrlik). Right now, I don't think you can claim a winner in the most physically intimidating head-to-head match-up of the first round (sit down Raffi, we said head-to-head, not shoulder-to-head). Whichever player gets the better of game seven is likely to carry his team on to round two.
So there you have it. Simple enough, right? Alzner is boss, and there's no reason to think he and Carlson won't be again. Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin have had some great moments, but left Caps fans hoping for more. We shouldn't have expected anything different; the Bruins are a good team and Chara, Seidenberg, and the Bruins' top-six forwards are a tough assignment for anyone. The Caps will have their chances, the Bruins will have theirs. Game seven could go either way, but my prediction is that whichever team wins the majority of the above match-ups will win it all... just like the series started.