Now that we've examined the forward matchups between the Islanders and Capitals, it's time to look at the other half of the equation and try to figure out how the defensive matchups will look. The key matchups are obviously going to be the top pair defenders against John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom, but depth players always find a way to come to the forefront in the playoffs. Whether it's due to injury or the battles for secondary scoring, the second and third pairing defensemen will have something to say in this series. The Islanders have the advantage up front, but at first blush it appears the Caps should have the advantage on the blueline. Let's see how it stacks up.
First, the most common defense pairs (via Left Wing Lock):
The defensive pairs are more consistent than the forward lines were this season, so we should expect to see these pairs play together over the course of the series, health permitting. That last part, health, is a crucial factor for the Islanders right now as Travis Hamonic left their late-season game against the Penguins with a lower body injury after a hit from Long Island's own Rob Scuderi. Hamonic has been on the top pair all season (mostly with Calvin de Haan, but more often with Brian Strait lately), but he hasn't played since, and his status for the playoffs is currently unclear.
If Hamonic can't go, it will place a strain on the Islanders' top four defenders, an area in which they are not particularly deep. But, assuming Hamonic finds a way to take the ice, the Caps top forwards will see a lot of Hamonic with de Haan or Strait and Nick Leddy with Johnny Boychuk. The third pair is rounded out by Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey.
Now that we know which pairs to expect, let's take a look at the usage:
Travis Hamonic is clearly the go-to guy on defense, with de Haan and Brian Strait just below him in F QualComp TOI (as a result of their time playing with Hamonic). The Leddy/Boychuk pair gets the second toughest minutes, but similarly to how Jack Capuano uses his middle-six forwards, there isn't a whole lot of difference between Hamonic's pair and Leddy/Boychuk. The third pair is a little bit lower, but it doesn't look as though they are truly sheltered, and there's not a lot of variation among the zone starts so it looks like Capuano is comfortable rolling three defensive pairs throughout the game. If Barry Trotz keeps Ovechkin and Backstrom separate, then Leddy/Boychuk will likely play against Backstrom while Hamonic will face Ovechkin.
Again, if Hamonic can't go, the variation among the defensive pairs may increase, potentially drastically, as Leddy/Boychuk would almost certainly be asked to handle Ovechkin and Visnovsky's pair would be asked to handle some of the second line forward minutes (including, potentially, having to handle Backstrom). The lack of depth among the Caps' forwards means the shift may not require any of the remaining defenders to play too far above their level, but make no mistake, the Islanders will miss Hamonic dearly if he can't go. Even if Hamonic manages to play (as we expect), he's in line for some extremely physical minutes against Ovechkin (just ask Ryan McDonagh how that feels) and how well he can hold up will be a crucial determining factor in the series.
On the other side of things, the Caps' defensive pairs and usage are pretty well established at this point:
Brooks Orpik and John Carlson have been the tough minutes pair throughout the season, and we'd expect that to continue. That means they'll have a heavy dose of Tavares and their ability to handle that matchup will be critical to the Caps' success. After that, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner take a lot of the middle-six minutes, and Mike Green and Tim Gleason will handle the bottom-six minutes (obviously, there is some overlap there). Look for Green to get some extra offensive zone starts when the opportunity presents itself, but other than that Trotz doesn't appear to have a strong preference for defensive utilization based on zones.
Now that we know the assignments, let's take a look at the results:
The good news for the Caps is that although Hamonic is the clear top choice among Islanders defenders, he's not dominating those minutes. He's just on the right side of 50% Corsi (50.83%), but he doesn't look great relative to his teammates. Things get even worse for that top pair if Strait has to play with Hamonic, and that appears to be the top pair over the last ten games or so (with de Haan picking up several healthy scratches late in the season). Ovechkin absolutely has to win this battle for the Caps to have a chance at even strength.
After that top pair, Leddy and Boychuk are just killing it. Given the lack of depth among the Caps' forwards, expect to see this pair continue to dominate. Maybe if Backstrom is separated from Ovi he may be able to provide some push back against the Leddy/Boychuk pair, but on paper that looks like an advantageous matchup for the Islanders. Visnovsky and Hickey handle third pair minutes well, and Visnovsky certainly has a skill set that meshes with the talented and speedy forwards on the Islanders, but they also seem to be a pair that could suffer from the heavy, if not necessarily skilled, forecheck the Caps will bring. Visnovsky in particular has had some trouble staying healthy the last couple of years, so if the Caps' forecheck can get to him the Islanders could be in some trouble.
On the other hand, unfortunately for the Caps, they don't appear to have quite the defensive advantage we'd hoped:
Neither of the top two pairs looks particularly great, certainly nothing like Leddy/Boychuk. Green has had another great year in terms of puck possession, especially with Nate Schmidt, but that's probably not enough to sway the balance given the minutes and assignments. If Orpik/Carlson and Niskanen/Alzner can't win their matchups in the top-nine, the Caps are likely going to struggle at even strength.
We do need to keep in mind that these Corsi values are all relative, meaning the performance of teammates impacts the numbers. Green's great performance makes the top two pairs look less successful, relatively (and vice versa) while Boychuk/Leddy's great performance makes Hamonic look relatively less successful against top pairs (and vice versa). Other than Orpik (49.66%), the rest of the Caps' defensive corps is above 50% Corsi, so it's not as though the defensive pairs were losing their matchups throughout the season. But the defensemen on both teams are mostly above 50% Corsi on the season, so something has to give.
We're also not perfectly capable of separating forward and defensive performance, so much of the advantage the Isles may appear to have in their defensive performance is likely tied to their advantage in the forward ranks (for instance, Leddy and Boychuk both spent more time with Tavares than any other Islanders forward, which probably helped a bit).
Given the Caps have Green and Gleason, both established NHLers with good-to-great track records, on the third pair, and the Islanders have a top pair defender that wouldn't even crack the Caps' lineup, it seems relatively clear that the Caps have the greater defensive depth (and if you look at the guys on the bench, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov are almost surely superior to the other options the Islanders are looking at, Strait/de Haan, Matt Donovan and Griffin Reinhart). Whether that defensive depth is enough to overcome the Islanders' forward depth will go a long way to determining the winner of this series.