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Alz Well That Ends Well?

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A look at the Capitals’ “shutdown” pair... and whether they should be shut down in that role

Dallas Stars v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Sunday night in Columbus, in what could fairly be called his team’s biggest game of the year to date, Barry Trotz’s Caps were holding on for dear life to a lead late in the third period, what had been a three-goal advantage having been cut to two before failing to convert on a power play in the game’s last ten minutes. Graphically, those last ten minutes looked like this (via Muneeb):

In other words, after that power play, the Jackets outshot (shot attempts, that is) by a 16-0 margin over the last 6:37, and outscored them 1-0... and they were awfully close to tying the game.

They didn’t, of course, and, granted, the final minute and change was played with Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky watching from the bench after being pulled in favor of a sixth attacker. Further, knowing what we do about score effects, a Columbus push when trailing was certainly to be expected. But the Caps were fortunate to withstand that blitzkrieg, and may not be so lucky next time around - if teams are said to “tilt the ice” when they have a decided possession advantage, this rink was damn-near vertical for nearly seven minutes.

So what led to that one-sided finish? In part, defensive deployments. Let’s take a look at the shift chart down the stretch, via the fantastic ShiftChart:

Coming out of the failed power play, Trotz essentially rolled through his pairings until the Jackets scored to halve the lead. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were outshot 1-0, and then there was a television timeout with 5:50 left and a neutral-zone face off. On came John Carlson and Karl Alzner (and the second line, with Tom Wilson skating in Justin Williams’ spot), who were outshot 3-0 in a 45-second shift before giving way to Kevin Shattenkirk and Brooks Orpik (along with the top line), whose shift ended after 38 seconds with a goal-against on the Jackets’ third shot attempt of that shift.

That would be the end of the night for Shattenkirk, and Trotz put the Niskanen-Orlov duo back out with the third line for the ever-important shift-after-a-goal-against. The result was 46 seconds with one shot against and a stoppage for a face-off in the Caps’ zone. That meant Carlson-Alzner (along with the fourth line), a shift that Carlson left after 39 seconds and one shot against, but which Alzner remained on for a total of 1:05 and another shot against. Orlov was able to get on for a 29-second last shift (one more shot against), and then it was back to Carlson and Alzner for a marathon shift for the latter - one that lasted 1:46, encompassed two Carlson shifts and one Niskanen twirl, and four shots against. It also featured the Caps winning two of three defensive-zone draws (all three taken by Nicklas Backstrom) and, perhaps most notably, a Columbus timeout after 1:06 (this is where Carlson comes back out).

The Caps survived that shift and closed the game out with 21 seconds of Niskanen and Orpik with a pair of shots-against in the dying seconds of the game. (The full play-by-play sheet is available here.)

So what stands out? How about Alzner’s ice time... and the results.

Alzner skated 3:36 of the last 5:50 and the Caps were outshot 9-0 during that time. That’s not all that different from the 6-0 they were outshot in the other 2:14; what’s particularly interesting, though, is that Trotz put Alzner back out after the timeout, despite the fact that Alzner was already having a brutal night (by shot metrics) and, perhaps more to the point, is having a brutal season (by shot metrics).

Here’s one way to visualize Alzner’s night (note Carlson’s as well)...

... and his season:

To be sure, there’s context that mitigates some of these numbers for Alzner - he gets the least favorable zone starts of the D-corps (i.e. he sees a lot more defensive-zone face-offs than offensive-zone draws) and routinely faces the toughest competition:

But those differences in competition versus, say, Niskanen aren’t huge (less than a minute of average five-on-five ice time among the forwards they’ve faced, and virtually identical defender minutes), and certainly aren’t enough to explain what have been flat-out poor shot metrics. Context may help to explain bad results, but the bottom line here is the bad results, not the context - if Alzner’s getting buried against top competition, maybe he shouldn’t be facing top competition. To that end, here’s what Sunday night’s game looked like (note that the pluses here are pluses for Columbus, minuses for the Caps):

Yikes - that’s Alzner (and Carlson) getting caved-in by the Jackets’ top skaters in big minutes (and note that these are five-on-five minutes, so five-on-six time isn’t included here). To put a number on it, Natural Stat Trick had the Jackets outshooting the Caps 17-3 when both Alzner and Brandon Dubinsky were on the ice. That’s... something. Of course, this was a road game and Columbus had the last line change, so they could get the match-ups they wanted... but is there reason to think that Trotz wouldn’t have wanted Carlson and Alzner out against the Jackets’ top (by minutes, at least) line?

Most importantly, this is just one example of an ongoing struggle for Alzner (and Carlson) against top competition. You’ll recall from our recent post on the team’s bottom-six forwards that we can get a look at how skaters have performed against varying levels of competition with handy charts that Muneeb has crafted. As we noted then, here’s a primer on how to read the following chart: green is good, purple is bad; the higher you look on the vertical axis, the tougher the (forward) competition; the further right you go on the horizontal axis, the better the (forward) teammates; and the bigger the circle, the larger the sample size (in minutes). With that out of the way, here’s a look at the Caps’ defense:

This is the money graphic. What we see here is that Alzner has struggled against... well, a lot of varied competition. He’s been able to tread water at times against ~16-minute opposition when skating with the top line or the third line, but against better competition, he’s been comfortably on the wrong side of 50%. (The picture is a bit better for Carlson, generally).

Contrast that to Niskanen, who has generally outperformed above-16-minute competition when skating with the first or third line. Ditto Orlov when skating with the first line (and there’s reason to think he’d do just fine out there with the third line as well).

In other words, Niskanen and Orlov have performed better against top competition than Alzner and Carlson. This shouldn’t come as much surprise, but it serves as confirmation, to an extent, that the reason Niskanen and Orlov are outperforming Alzner and Carlson so thoroughly isn’t simply a difference in the minutes they’re playing - they’re just better defensemen by these metrics.

So what’s the point? Essentially it’s this: if the Caps rely on Karl Alzner and John Carlson to shut down opponents’ top lines going forward, they’re playing with fire. Barry Trotz needs to be careful who he’s putting them out with, and be mindful of match-ups that aren’t going to work in his favor.

A better option (assuming that the pairings aren’t changing, and there’s no reason to believe they will be at this point) would be to give Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov the tougher minutes - they’ve shown they can handle them.