For the first three games of the season, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin have been split up. Though this separation may not last long, and though they have spent some time apart during their years in DC, splitting them up is definitely a deviation from the norm. One impact of this change is forcing opponents to make a tough decision in how to match lines against the Caps.
But another major impact is the way the Caps are matching up against the opposition’s top line. Barry Trotz had generally preferred a power vs power matchup, often pitting the Backstrom-Ovechkin line against the other team’s top offensive line. With the duo broken up, the tough task of playing against the opponent’s top line each night has been assigned to the Caps second line of Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Backstrom.
So far, through an admittedly tiny sample of three games, the results have been outstanding. Not only has the Caps’ second line stifled the offense of the opponent’s top line, but by controlling the puck and going on the attack, they’ve been forcing the top offensive weapons of the Caps’ opponent to spend more time on defense than offense.
Backstrom, Burakovsky, and Johansson have spent the most 5v5 time on ice against the top centers of the Caps’ opponents so far this season, those being Evgeny Malkin, John Tavares, and Nathan MacKinnon. Due to shift changes on the fly, the individual numbers of each member of the trio vs these centers differs slightly, but not in a meaningful way. For our purposes, the head-to-head numbers of the lines will be pulled from Backstrom’s head-to-head numbers vs the first-line center of the other team.
Here’s how they’ve done so far:
|2nd line vs:||Time on ice||Caps attempts||Opponent attempts||Shot attempt +/-|
All stats from Natural Stattrick
So, the Caps second line, which has spent the most time against the opponent’s top line, is a plus-10 in on-ice shot attempts in over 25 minutes of ice time. This is good for a 60.1 percent shot attempt percentage. Turning another teams first line into a 40 percent possession team is like turning them into the 2014-15 Sabres, one of the worst teams of all-time.
Instead of trying to shut down the most dangerous players on the other team with a checking line, the Caps are deploying a line with smart, offensively talented players who often excel in puck possession. The results have been excellent so far. Not only is the second line limiting the shots against, they are also taking the play to their opponent. Having players such as Malkin, Tavares, and MacKinnon spend more time on defense than on offense is a key ingredient in a recipe for success. And, if the second line is able to continue this pattern, it will go a long ways to a successful 2016-17 season for the Caps.
Headline Photo: Rob Carr
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