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The Narrative: Face Offs, Dominance and Deployments

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Three things we’re talking about today when we’re talking about the Caps

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Around here, we like to say that while individual face offs matter, of course, the importance of face offs, generally, is overstated. Case-in-point, the Leafs’ game-winner came 20 seconds after the eventual goal-scorer (Kasperi Kapanen) beat Evgeny Kuznetsov on a draw in the Caps’ zone, and Washington was unable to ever gain possession and clear the puck (John Carlson losing his stick certainly didn’t help matters, nor did the icing that put the Caps in that spot in the first place). Fun fact: not only was that was Kapanen’s first career playoff overtime goal, it was his first face off in the NHL.

That face off - and what happened after it - mattered. And you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the Caps have been dominated in the dots through two games, winning just 42.1 percent of face offs (after a 49.8% mark during the regular season, just one-tenth of a percentage point behind Toronto). Here’s how the Caps with more than 10 draws so far have fared:

There’s nothing particularly terrible there among the top-three face off guys (though Jay Beagle coming in at 46.3 percent after posting a 56.4 during the regular season is surprising), and Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie should be a lot better - 23.8 percent in 21 draws per night isn’t helpful. And here’s how their counterparts have done:

But here’s the kicker, via Faceoffs.net - the Caps have won just 40 percent (28 of 70) offensive zone draws and 30 percent (3 of 10) of shorthanded face offs. To the extent that face offs matter, more generally, it’s at the extremes, in higher-leverage situations and over larger samples. The Caps have been extremely bad in some of these higher-leverage situations, but the sample size is still small and the Caps are still faring well, overall, in shot attempts. So when Barry Trotz says this, he’s not wrong... but it’s also not why the Caps are tied in this series:

2. Speaking of “tied,” how about that shift on which the Caps tied the game late in the third?

That’s 1:18 of sustained offensive-zone time, and the culmination of a five-on-five push by the Caps during which Washington out-attempted Toronto by a 14-2 margin over a span of about six minutes. Score effects certainly played a part in that, but the Caps were ultimately able to break through thanks to that dominant shift by the top line, out there with the top defensive pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. Go back and watch how many times the Caps hold the zone with a combination of skill and smart, aggressive play. More, please.

3. On a related point, with the series shifting to Toronto - where Mike Babcock will get the last line change and, with it, the match-ups he wants - how Barry Trotz deploys his troops will be of heightened importance. Through two games, there seem to be trends emerging, as per this chart from Muneeb:

Play the top (Nicklas Backstrom) line with Orlov and Niskanen, and avoid the third pair; avoid playing the second (Kuznetsov) line with Karl Alzner and Carlson; play the fourth (Jay Beagle) line sparingly, and probably not with that top pair; and play the third (Eller) line with anyone. There is, of course, context that’s missing from this chart, including the competition against which they’ve played (see below), but make no mistake - the battle of the bench bosses is on and Trotz is going up against the best in the business.