Folks, I have been places you can not imagine. Deep inside the internet, where only geeks and perverts dare enter. Places I've only heard about in whispered tones. I went... full nerd. Everyone knows you don't go full nerd, but I did it anyway. This break is killing me and I can't wait until Thursday to get a Vancouver-Los Angeles match up. I was poopin' yesterday, thinking about the line ups, and I suddenly realized I'd been in there for 1/2 an hour and I had to hold myself up with my arms for 30 seconds to get feeling back in my legs. I'm slowly turning into John Nash, writing while I'm driving, talking to imaginary blonde fellows, cheating on my wife... it's an obsession. Luckily for you, I'm still (barely) coherent enough to deliver my findings. And down my hole we go...
Basically, I was curious to see how Vancouver and LA had played one another during the regular season. I used NHL Shift Charts, which should be classified as an addictive substance by the ATF, of the 4 games the two teams played this season (10/29, 11/26, 12/14, 4/1). I had a hunch the reason the Canucks did so well against the Kings in the regular season was because Ryan Kesler was so effective at stopping Anze Kopitar. Was that the case? To find out... read this next word: no. Or at least, not really.
Anze Kopitar had 3 points in 4 games against the Canucks and had no plus/minus. (Had a 0 plus/minus? Was even? Whatever, you know what I mean.) Kopitar averaged about 24 shifts in the 4 games against Vancouver; Kesler was on the ice for about 10 shifts a game. Isn't that surprising? It was to me. I just kind of assumed, "Kopitar's our best forward, Kesler's a great shutdown guy, they'll always square off." It made sense. But it looks like Alain Vigneault doesn't really use Kesler consistently against top forwards, or at least against our particular top forward. But who shut down Kopitar, then?
This guy. Mitchell was on the ice for about 17 of Kopitar's shifts in the first 3 games of the season series and he did very well. Mitchell (along with Sammy Salo) effectively shut Kopitar down each game, as Mitchell is one of the few guys in the league with the will and size to get to Kopitar. Unfortunately for the Canucks, Mitchell is out indefinitely after because of a concussion, a concussion given to him by Evgeni Malkin. In the 4th game the Canucks didn't have a dedicated pairing shut down Kopitar, instead rotating Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa as they saw fit. The result? A goal, an assist, and a +2 for our boy Anze.
|Kopitar Shifts||Shifts v. Mitchell||Points||+/-|
Now, is this important? Not necessarily. One thing you'll notice if you look at those shift charts is that when guys "match up" against one another, they're really not playing against each other all that much. Kopitar, for example, was free from Mitchell almost a quarter of his shifts in the first game. That's almost 5 minutes of game time. When people say so and so will match up against what's his face, what they really mean is that they'll play against each other when the coach can make it happen. A coach isn't going to drastically alter his line changes just for one particular match up, because doing so could screw up the rest of the game. But still, you're talking about the #1 guy against Kopitar and now he's out of the picture.
I think we're going to see a lot more Kesler on Kopitar during the playoffs. Kesler is good enough offensively that he's not worthless when he's not on the other team's top line; he can score, too. That's why I think Vigneault doesn't rely on him exclusively to play defense. This is the playoffs, though, and Vigneault will want to use Kesler's best skill set. Kopitar won't see Mitchell, though, and I think that could ultimately be a game changer.
Terry Murray is different from Alain Vigneault; instead of relying on a shutdown defensive pairing, Murray chooses to rely on a shutdown defensive center. Michal Handzus is the Kings' defensive ace. It makes sense if you think about it; why use Doughty exclusively in a defensive role when he's such a dynamic offensive weapon? Doughty needs to rest some time, and it's usually at even strength after he's been on the power play. Handzus, unlike Kesler, isn't a great offensive player and is mediocre when he's not against another team's top line. When he is, though... he's pretty good. I feel like he may be getting overlooked. Here's a chart that details the number of shifts Sedin took in each game, the number of shifts versus Handzus, and Sedin's points and plus-minus:
|Shifts||Shifts v/ Zeus||Points||+/-|
(Note: The 11/26 game is the game where Stoll was out and Brayden Schenn played, so Handzus didn't play nearly as much in the 2nd half of the game (~13 minutes) because I assume Murray wanted to give Schenn and Brad Richardson a look at center. Sedin played less in the 4/1 game because the score was beyond doubt by the middle of the 2nd.)
As you can probably tell, the first and last games were in LA, while the middle games were in Vancouver. Henrik is a very good center but Handzus does better against him than I thought. I assumed Handzus wasn't fast enough to stop Sedin but I think his length and smarts can disrupt the cycle of the Sedin brothers. Handzus likely won't see Sedin too much in Vancouver (that job will lie with Fro-Stoll-Brown), but at home it should be an exciting match up. It's not one I'm confident Zeus can win, but I'd like to see him try.
Kopitar v. Kesler (and Salo- Whoever), Sedin v. Handzus (and Scuderi-Doughty*). Those are the match ups that are going to decide this series. I know I sound like one of those guys that actually believes The Da Vinci Code is real but I needed to do something. I mean, I started this and then boom, it's 3 hours later. That means the games are getting closer. At least now I feel like I have a handle on how the coaches are going to run their lines. Now if only I can figure out goaltending...
*puts on goggles
I'm going back in.
*I had a whole thing about how originally Johnson went up against Sedin but now it's Doughty but I blacked out and when I woke up my pants were in my mouth so I took that as I sign I needed to stop. You can look it up yourself, though.