Five-on-five matchups are critical in the playoffs. Unlike the regular season, focus levels are generally high, and talent levels are relatively equal across teams. This means that scoring or preventing goals depends heavily on the ability of coaching staffs to get the right players on the ice at the right times.
Any Caps fan who remembers the meetings with the Rangers in years past can appreciate this - New York Rangers coaches did their best to ensure that Ryan McDonagh's defensive pairing shadowed Alex Ovechkin's line at all times. With this in mind, how will the Caps and Flyers match up this playoff series?
Flyers Forward Lines Against Capitals Forward Lines
If there's an area that the Flyers may have a slight matchup advantage over the Caps, it's in the defensive abilities of their top two centers. Last season, Sean Couturier was clearly Philly's shutdown center; his top five opponents at five-on-five were John Tavares, Ryan Johansen, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby, according to Stats.Hockeyanalysis.com.
This year, Couturier's extended absences forced coach Dave Hakstol to use Claude Giroux in a power-vs-power deployment, with mixed results. Giroux put up strong Corsi percentages relative to his teammates (9.4, good for 3rd on the Flyers). However, a glance at his "against you" numbers on stats.hockeyanalysis.com suggest that he struggled against other team's top forwards; his Corsi % against the Caps' top-six forwards, for instance, was consistently well below 50%. Couturier did much better in his deployments against the Caps' best forwards this year, putting up a 63.4% Corsi-for percentage against Alex Ovechkin (albeit in limited time).
Hakstol does his best to shelter his third and fourth lines. with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nick Cousins, and their linemates getting easier personnel matchups and a heavier dose of offensive-zone starts.
The data suggests that Hakstol should attempt to match Couturier against the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line, but he'll likely accept matching either of his top-two lines against the Caps' top-two lines. With this deployment, the Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov lines will likely get some offensive chances against Giroux and his linemates. Otherwise, Barry Trotz should be able to use his strong third and fourth lines to cause major lineup headaches for Hakstol.
Capitals Forward Lines Against Flyers Forward Lines
Flyers Defensemen against Capitals Forwards
The data for the Flyers' defensive matchups - much like those for the forwards - is skewed by injuries (the loss of Michael del Zotto in particular) and the mid-season emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere, but we can still see some clear tendencies by Hakstol when deploying his defensemen.
Despite his legitimately amazing season (or perhaps one reason for it), Hakstol has generally sheltered the young Gostisbehere, giving him the most offensive zone starts of any Flyers defenseman and sending him out against the weakest competition measured by Corsi Rel. As Gostisbehere's most frequent partner, Andrew McDonald is likewise relatively sheltered, which is probably for the best, given his track record of abysmal performance in possession metrics. Brandon Manning also gets relatively easy deployments on the third pairing.
Right now you're probably thinking, "defensemen play in pairs, and he's just listed three Flyers defensemen that need to be kept away from tough matchups..." This is going to be Hakstol's biggest puzzle against the Caps - he has three defensemen that he mostly trusts with tough matchups: Nick Schultz, Radko Gudas, and Mark Streit. None of those guys conjures up images of Ryan McDonagh, Drew Doughty, or Duncan Keith.
The Flyers' lack of defensive depth places Hakstol's coaching staff on the horns of a dilemma. Gostisbehere is their most talented defenseman and their best puck-mover by far, but he's likely not ready for the demands of matching up against Backstrom and Ovechkin over the course of a seven-game series. It's unclear, however, whether the alternatives of Streit, Schultz, or Gudas are much better.
Capitals Defensemen against Flyers Forwards
Much like the Flyers, Injuries impacted the defensive depth chart for the Caps in 2015-16. The Caps entered the regular season with Brooks Orpik and John Carlson forming their top defensive pair, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner comprising the second pair, and Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt filling out the third pairing. Long-term injuries to Orpik and Carlson elevated the Niskanen-Alzner pair into the "shutdown" slot., and that duo led the Caps in even strength TOI/60, Quality of Competition (by Corsi Rel), and Defensive Zone starts; John Tavares, Claude Giroux, and Sidney Crosby were their most frequent opponent at five a side, and the Caps' pair held their own.
The long-term result of these injuries is that the Caps now have two pairings that could qualify as "shutdown pairings", or they could deploy three balanced pairings by matching Carlson with Nate Schmidt and Orpik with Dmitry Orlov. Based on their late-season moves, it would appear that Trotz and Todd Reirden prefer to pair Carlson with Orpik. This means that the Caps will have two pairings that they can use to match up with either the Giroux line or the Couturier line. Whatever incarnations of Orlov, Schmidt, Chorney and Weber are used will likely see more limited usage against the Flyers' third and fourth lines.
The regular-season data (and the eye test) suggest that Reirden and Trotz should use Niskanen and Alzner against Giroux's line. This should free up John Carlson to take some offensive chances against the Couturier line. While Trotz has alluded to using Mike Weber against a physical team like the Flyers, he should consider using Orlov and Schmidt together to gain a possession advantage against the Flyers' third and fourth lines.Over the course of the regular season, Orlov and Schmidt used their skating and puck skills to exploit such matchups to the tune of a 57.8 Corsi-For percentage and a 54.5 Goals-For percentage.
If Reirden and Trotz manage their ice time effectively (i.e., by not putting them out against lines that can exploit their inevitable mistakes), they could shift the balance of the series in the Caps' favor.
The Caps and Flyers are two franchises at vastly different points in their development cycle - the Caps are solidly in their Stanley Cup window, while the Flyers are in a re-tooling year as they wait for players like Gostisbehere to mature into well-rounded NHL stars. (It's a position familiar to Caps fans who remember the last playoff clash between these two teams back in 2007-08.)
The result of this differential is a massive gap in roster depth. In turn, this gap creates myriad matchup advantages for the Caps. Each time Barry Trotz and his staff throw their third and fourth lines, or their third defensive pairing over the boards, they'll be looking to exploit a favorable matchup. By contrast, each time Dave Hakstol and his staff tap their bottom-six forwards or defensemen on the shoulder, they'll be praying that they don't make a critical mistake.