The NHL Playoffs is often billed as a clash of statistical giants--e.g. Pekka Rinne's historically good SV% vs. "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry, or a top penalty kill unit versus an equally good power play. Whether bound to the fallacious idea that "something's gotta give," or simply interested in seeing the league's best players in each other's faces, these match-ups make the playoffs great.
Nashville's forthcoming semi-final series against Vancouver, though, will instead feature a clash of statistical outliers.
Most teams roll their forward lines pretty regularly, trying to evenly distribute ice time and keep everyone fresh. Sometimes, however, after an icing, goalie gloving the puck, or other stoppage, an opposing coach will put out his best offensive players, hoping to hem the opponents in their end. "Zone start" is a stat that records when a player substitutes in for his team on an offensive zone or defensive zone faceoff.
Most players have a zone start percentage near 50%, an even distribution of offensive and defensive zone draws (neutral zone is omitted). On the extremes, though, we find a Predator and few Canucks. The Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Alexandre Burrows line ranks 1-2-3 in offensive zone start %; they are the only three players greater than 70%. Down at the bottom of the list is overtime-hero Jerred Smithson, just 33.2%, seventh least out of all forwards.
And that's just even-strength! Between defensive zone faceoffs and first-line penalty kill duty, Jerred Smithson and his sidekick Nick Spaling figure to see a lot of twins this week. But in the greater context of the series, they will only represent a small portion of the Predators' anti-Sedin initiative.
Here's how the Predators were deployed against Vancouver's top line, in four games this season:
(Fisher and Goc are lumped together since one took the other's job. Fisher played in the two March games.)
These percentages represent the amount of ice time the Sedins played against each Predator, including Pekka Rinne. So, functionally, the percentages are much higher. Anything approaching 10% generally represents a concerted effort by a coach to keep one player constantly on the ice against another.
So what does the chart tell us? And why did the match-up change nearly every game? Here's the breakdown of those games, as I remember them:
- 1/26--The Predators took a 1-0 lead early in the third period but gave up two goals afterwards. Because it was a road game, giving the Canucks had the last shift, the Predators opened the game with Kostitsyn-Goc-Erat in a power-vs.-power role against the Sedin line. As the game went on, the Preds basically rolled lines, hence the even percentages.
- 2/17--Goc sustained and injury early in this game, so go figure.
- 3/3--This game is much more representative of the Predators' current configuration, with Fisher and Geoffrion in, and Goc out. Again, the game was tied 0-0 for two periods. And again, because the Canucks were at home and often playing behind, they got the matchup they wanted with the Sedin-line vs. the Fisher-line. It burned the Predators, though not on the scoreboard, as Fisher lost 4 of 4 faceoffs in the defensive zone against Henrik Sedin.
- 3/29--Here's our current lines with Trotz's match-ups of choice. It's all Legwand all the time. Some fans think Fisher is a better defensive player--I would disagree--but Trotz wants Legwand and Ward shutting down the Sedin boys, so Fisher v. Kesler determines the score.
With all that in mind, here are my keys to shutting down the Sedins in this series:
- PK and PR-- The Predators penalty kill has to be better than it was against the Ducks. Ditto for Pekka Rinne.
- Fisher on the road-- During the road games, Mike Fisher needs to get physical on the forecheck. Many onlookers thought Chicago's physicality against the Sedins enabled their miraculous near-comeback. Fish also needs to win those faceoffs--it's the one thing he definitely does better than Legwand on defense.
- Legwand at home-- The Sedins cycle extremely well in the offensive zone. Legwand needs to use his speed to stretch the game out to all three zones, making the Sedins wear themselves out doing things other than taking shots.
- $mithson and $paling with the lead late-- If the Predators are winning, the third period will feature a lot of Sedins trying to wriggle through a neutral zone trap. Rinne gloves a lot of shots and no one plays back on their heels better than Nashville. Smithson will be taking a ton of high pressure faceoffs late.
- Suter and Weber--Duh.