There is perhaps nothing on Earth that has as many clichés associated with it as playoff hockey. “Defense wins championships,” “Experience makes the difference,” and “Special teams are incredibly important in the playoffs” are all repeated ad nauseam every year, starting around April, and often used as a substitute for real analysis or insight. But there is one team attribute which, while not mentioned as often as experience or good goaltending, is one of the essential ingredients of playoff success: depth. The reason is that, in the playoffs, good teams are often able to shut down or at least contain a team’s top line, putting more pressure on second and third-line players to produce.
One good recent example of this is the recently completed playoff series between Detroit and Columbus. The Blue Jackets are a strong defensive team, playing a closed system emphasized by head coach Ken Hitchhock, and riding strong goaltending provided by Steve Mason. They are not a dangerous offensive team by any stretch of the imagination; they finished 21st in the NHL in goals for, second to last among playoff teams, and have only one really dangerous offensive weapon, Rick Nash. Shut down Nash, and you shut down the Blue Jackets.
The Red Wings managed to do this in spades, confronting Columbus' line of Nash, Malhotra, and Modin with their own line of Zetterberg, Cleary, and Franzen, along with the defensive pairing of Lidstrom and Rafalski. The Nash line spent almost 80 percent of its time at even strength against this unit. In the first two games, Nash recorded no points, the Blue Jackets scored only one goal, and the Red Wings easily won both games. In the third game, despite being on Columbus' home ice, Nash (now on a line with Kristina Huselius) still spent most of his time against the same five Red Wings players. Columbus' lone goal came on a power play, and the Red Wings won easily, again.
The art of the matchup is one of the least understood aspects of hockey. Making sure that you get your best defensive line matched up against the right opponents, utilizing the home-ice advantage of the last line-change, or splitting up your top line to generate more independent offensive threats are all aspects that have never been analyzed much. When looking at who defensive players play against, we get most of our suspicions confirmed: noted defensive specialist John Madden, for example, played more against Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom than any other players in the NHL this season, even though the Devils and Capitals are not even in the same division! Travis Moen got matched up mainly with Jarome Iginla and Anze Kopitar. For defensemen, this tendency can be even more pronounced, since they are on the ice for a bigger fraction of the game. Zdeno Chara, for example, was assigned to defend not only Ovechkin and Backstrom, but also Alexei Kovalev, Eric Staal, and Ottawa’s top line of Alfredsson, Heatley, and Spezza.
In the playoffs, it seems the art of the matchup gets to taken to another level, because teams have time to analyze each other and tailor their strategies to their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s why so many excellent one-line offensive teams have floundered in the playoffs. The 1997 Philadelphia Flyers rode the “Legion of Doom” to the Finals, but the Red Wings neutralized them, sweeping the Flyers in four games. More recently, the 2007 Ottawa Senators were strong going into the final, but an Anaheim team that featured not only Chris Pronger and Scott Neidermeyer but also many defensive specialists like Moen, Samuel Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermeyer managed to defeat them easily in five games. Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins only won the Cup when they added Ron Francis as their second-line center, and the two powerhouses of the late '90s, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings, both featured two “first-line” centers, in Colorado’s case Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, and for Detroit's Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. Given this history, what can we say about this year’s playoffs, and the marquee matchups we are likely to see?
As befits the final eight of the Stanley Cup tournament, many of the remaining teams have several star players who can break a game open. The New Jersey Devils learned this to their dismay: after keeping Eric Staal to a single even-strength point in the first five games of the series and building up a 3-2 lead, they let him explode for five points in the last two matches, including his scoring the series-winning goal with less than a minute left in the seventh, deciding game. This happened even though they apparently got the matchup they wanted, with Staal’s line on the ice against Madden, Pandolfo, and Shanahan. The Boston Bruins will have to do better, and they have, so far: during the regular season, the Bruins won all four games against the Hurricanes, keeping them to six goals total, and keeping Staal without a point; that's with Chara on the ice against him at all times. If the Bruins can reproduce this success in the playoffs, this will be a short series.
The East’s other series, featuring the Capitals against the Penguins, will be a dream contest of offensive skill, where checking lines will be tested to the utmost. The Caps seem like a case study from the top-heavy teams file: despite the occasional heroics from players like Sergei Fedorov, they rely disproportionaltely on their top three forwards (Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom), with Mike Green as a Paul Coffey-like “fourth forward.” In practice, Bruce Boudreau has split up his talent into two lines, with Ovechkin playing with Kozlov and Fedorov, while Backstrom and Semin play with Tomas Fleischmann.
The Capitals got the best of the Penguins during the regular season, winning three games and losing one in overtime. This was because the Penguins couldn’t control Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin, neither at even strength nor on the power play. Look for the Penguins to try and contain Ovechkin’s or Semin’s line with defensemen Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik and defensive forward Jordan Staal. On the flip side, Sidney Crosby has been the most dangerous player in the playoffs at even-strength, with six points in six games; Washington will try to use their home-ice advantage in the first two games to keep Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn against the Crosby-Kunitz-Guerin line.
When facing the Vancouver Canucks, the objective is easy: stop the Sedins. With Alex Burrows coming into his own, the Canucks' top line is a force to be reckoned with. The Blackhawks have a superb top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who have already succeeded in the first mission of the playoffs, shutting down Jarome Iginla, and will be called on again to do the same against Vancouver’s top line. With Seabrook and Keith playing 24 to 27 minutes a game, they should be on the ice all the time against Vancouver’s biggest threats. Vancouver has a fine defensive forward in Ryan Kesler, an underrated blue line, and a goaltender who is among the NHL’s best, and they will need them all against Chicago’s offense. The Blackhawks have several dangerous players, from Martin Havlat and Patrick Sharp, to youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, to rookie Kris Versteeg, to Andrew Ladd, who scored an impressive 48 points at even-strength playing only 14 minutes a game. The Canucks will keep their top four defensemen, Mattias Ohlund, Willie Mitchell, Alexander Edler, and Kevin Bieksa, on the ice at all times against the Blackhawks’ top two lines, and will aim to pit Kesler against the top pairing of Toews and Kane. Luckily for them, they also have Roberto Luongo on the ice and tending goal for 60 minutes a game.
The powerhouse Western Conference matchup of Detroit and Anaheim may well hinge on whether the Red Wings can control Ryan Getzlaf as well as they did Rick Nash. While the Sharks’ loss has more to do with their own offensive ineptitude, they never did solve Getzlaf, who blitzed them for eight points in six games, five of those scored in even-strength situations. The Ducks’ top five of Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Chris Pronger, and Scott Niedermeyer is playing as well as any unit in the NHL right now, and played almost all of game six together. The Red Wings will aim to keep their shutdown unit of Zetterberg, Cleary, Franzen, Lidstrom, and Rafalski on the ice against that group as much as possible. While the Red Wings dominated the regular-season series between the teams, winning three games and losing one in overtime, the last game between the two teams was February 20th, and the Ducks have been transformed since then.
At the other end of the ice, the top defensive matchup for the Ducks will be against the Red Wings’ power-play unit. The Ducks' penalty killers notched an uninspiring 79.7 percent success rate in the regular season, but they did a masterful job of smothering the Sharks’ power-play attack, which had been one of the best in the league. If the Niedermeyer brothers, Pronger, and Jonas Hiller can reproduce this success against the Wings’ league-leading power play, they will give themselves a much better chance of winning the series.
There are many facets to matching players. While some teams have a top defensive pair they want to ice the opponent’s biggest threats, others utilize a checking line, or in some cases a physical line that can also score goals. The hardest players to match up against are those who, like Zetterberg, are not only defensive specialists but offensive threats in their own right. Do I match them up against my top line, hoping they will cancel each other out, or do I send my own defensive unit after them?
Can we judge if a coach has “outcoached” someone else by getting the matchups they wanted? This is almost impossible to do objectively. It would require somehow knowing what are the desired matchups, and then measuring how close the actual matchups resembled this. In practice, we can estimate it, knowing who the best defensive players on a team are, and checking who they are played against.
We can also say that matchups matter far more at even strength, where everybody is on a level playing field, than in man-advantage situations, in which players are easier to select based on their skill set. By this measure, the Boston Bruins were the easy winners in 2008-09, outscoring their adversaries by 56 even-strength goals. Does that make for an argument that Claude Julien should win the Adams Trophy? It’s possible, although if he keeps getting his matchups right he may get to touch another far more impressive trophy in six weeks.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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