For two of the three games in Washington, the Rangers appeared to be outmatched. This isn’t to say that the Caps actually outplayed the Rangers, except for Game Six, but it’s to say that the Caps appeared to match up better against the Rangers –and therefore played better– in those games. One can just look at the games and think that the Rangers just didn’t have it, or were just outplayed.
However, it more likely has to do with matchups. The home team has the final change, and that gave coach Dale Hunter the opportunity to use his shutdown line of Troy Brouwer, Matt Hendricks, and Brooks Laich on the Rangers top line of Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards, and Marian Gaborik. It has worked very well too. Even when that line generated the triple OT winner, it wasn’t due to poor positioning by the Caps.
Now, the Caps don’t have that advantage. John Tortorella has the final matchup of lines. It gives the coach a great opportunity to finally get his top line away from that very effective shutdown line the Caps have. Couple that with reuniting Chris Kreider with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan –forming a very good second scoring line– and the Rangers may be in matchup heaven.
But that does leave Torts with some decisions to make. Will he do everything he can to keep Richards and Gaborik away from the Caps shutdown line? Or will he roll the dice and allow the reunited line of youngsters (all homegrown by the way) carry the load against lesser defensive competition? The answer may come in how Hunter rolls his defensive pairings in conjunction with his forward lines.
John Carlson and Karl Alzner appear to be the pairing that gets the most ice time when the Rangers have their top scorers out. After that, it’s two pairings of Mike Green-Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik-Jeff Schultz. The last three there are pretty decent defensively, but they are no Carlson-Alzner.
For Hunter, he has a choice to make. Does he roll his top shutdown pair with his shutdown forwards when Gaborik/Richards are on the ice? In essence, if they do their job, they would shut down the Rangers top scoring threats at even strength. But that leaves the speed of the Kreider/Stepan/Callahan line to deal with. None of their remaining defensemen can match that speed.
The other choice is to separate his top shutdown pair from his shutdown line, and create two units that are capable of stymieing an offensive attack. The big risk here is that by splitting them up, you leave both lines with some holes if someone gets trapped or makes a mistake.
Game Seven’s take on a whole new meaning to the word matchup. The Rangers have the advantage with home ice, but the Caps have the personnel to stifle the Rangers offense. It’ll come down to who cracks first.