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Capitals vs. Flyers Game 1: Five-on-Five Matchups

Yesterday we previewed how the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers might match up during five-on-five play. How did those predictions bear out in Game 1?

Matt Niskanen separates Wayne Simmonds from the puck.
Matt Niskanen separates Wayne Simmonds from the puck.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Game one of the Caps-Flyers series diverged a bit from our expectations, largely due to the amount of special-teams play and the early injury to Sean Couturier. Nevertheless, some patterns emerged that may illustrate how the coaching staffs of these two teams plan to match up at five-on-five over the course of the series.

First, let's take a look at the matchup charts, courtesy of War-on-Ice:

These charts indicate both the Caps-Flyers matchups, but also the lines and five-man units internal to each team. Each square represents how the player on the Y-axis did relative to the player on the X-axis. Blue is positive; red is negative, and the size of the box indicates the time on ice. Black indicates that no Corsi events occurred in that matchup. So, fin the chart directly above, you can see that Ovi played a lot against Giroux at even strength (bigger box) and lost the possession battle (red box).

The first thing that jumps out at me is that Barry Trotz mostly stuck with the power-vs-power matchup of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie against Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, and Wayne Simmonds. This was more than just a forward matchup, since the chart indicates that it was really a matchup of two five man units, with Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner complementing the Backstrom line and Mark Streit and Nick Schultz backing up Giroux's line.

Over the course of the regular season, this was an advantageous matchup for the Caps, but in this game Giroux's line came out on top. Clearly Trotz is comfortable with this, since he had the last change and could have shifted away from it if he so chose. It's less clear that Dave Hakstol preferred this matchup, since Couturier had 2:20 of ice time against Backstrom in a little under half the game before his injury.

Second, Hakstol compensated for Couturier's injury by shifting Brayden Schenn to center and bumping Sam Gagner up to the second line. This adds further insult to the Couturier injury for the Flyers, as the line of Matt Read, Sean Cousins, and Gagner was their lone bright spot in terms of possession when matched up against the Caps' third and fourth lines. Pulling Gagner off that line will reduce its skill level and force Gagner to play against tougher competition moving forward .

Third, the development of Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner into the Caps' "1A" defensive pairing during the regular-season absences of John Carlson and Brooks Orpik really bore fruit last night. Niskanen played about 15 minutes of five-on-five hockey last night, the majority of which against the Giroux line, and he was even or positive in unblocked shot attempts against every single Flyers forward. The even-strength play of Niskanen and Alzner allowed Todd Reirden to match John Carlson and Brooks Orpik against the Couturier/Schenn line, which they dominated.

Finally, as we predicted in the preview, the Caps' forward depth paid dividends with the line of Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams flat-out dominating their matchups in terms of Corsi and scoring chances. While they didn't score at five-on-five, it's likely only a matter of time if they continue to play like they did on Thursday night.

Conclusion

In the preview of the five-on-five matchups, we noted that Dave Hakstol's coaching staff would have difficulty matching the depth of the Washington Capitals with only two strong possession lines and one and a half good defensive pairings. Game one exposed these flaws and added a new problem for his staff to deal with in the loss of Couturier.