Of all the things that make the Stanley Cup Playoffs great, the most enchanting is the chess match played between the two competing benches.
One of the unfortunate byproducts of a hectic regular season, when teams are constantly on the move from one city to the next, is that there isn’t much time to customize a game plan for specific foes. That changes in the playoffs, when there are extra days off between games, an increased familiarity with an opponent in a series (in addition to however many regular season meetings), and a general increased importance of uncovering every possible edge no matter how small it may seem.
All of that lends itself to a more meticulous preparation, which manifests itself in a fascinating back-and-forth. Early in a series teams tend to feel each other out, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. When one team eventually establishes a clear advantage somewhere on the ice, it’s up to the other team to make the requisite adjustments or risk being eliminated. For as much emphasis as we place on individual players elevating their games in big moments, the coaches also need to switch gears as their job description changes from ‘Motivator’ to ‘Puppeteer’ as the year progresses.
This is where Randy Carlyle deserves his fair share of credit. After a legitimately checkered past and a rough start to the 2016-17 season, he’s settled into doing a nice job of pulling the right strings and appropriately using the pieces he’s been given. That was particularly evident in Anaheim’s second round series against the Edmonton Oilers, when they made no bones about how they wanted to go about using their two-pronged attack down the middle.
The Ducks approached the matchup with a fairly sound plan at five-on-five, and managed to execute it – have Ryan Kesler out on the ice as often as possible when Connor McDavid and his line hopped over the boards. Here’s a look at how often Oilers players went up against Kesler (via Micah Blake McCurdy):
|Kesler’s Opponent||TOI vs. Opponent||% of Time Spent vs. Opponent|
With Kesler’s defensively oriented forward unit blanketing Edmonton’s two most lethal weapons, that freed up Ryan Getzlaf’s line to feast on the Oilers’ secondary forward options. Todd McLellan eventually reached the conclusion that he needed to separate McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to diversify his team’s attack, but unfortunately for them it came too late. Here’s a look at how often Oilers players went up against Getzlaf:
|Getzlaf’s Opponent||TOI vs. Opponent||% of Time Spent vs. Opponent|
By the time the series was over, it became pretty clear the Oilers didn’t have an in-house answer for Getzlaf as he became the most dominant player in the series. Eight of his 10 points came at five-on-five and all of those were primary. When he was on the ice the Ducks controlled 61 per cent of the shots on goal, 66.6 per cent of the scoring chances, and 64.3 per cent of the goals.
Anaheim’s unique ability to roll out the combination of Getzlaf and Kesler for select draws likewise provided an interesting wrinkle. Early on in Game 3, that combination caught the Oilers sleeping, with a seemingly harmless faceoff deep in the Ducks zone quickly resulting in a goal going the other way. After yet another clean faceoff win by Kesler, Andrew Cogliano made a quick dash to the bench so that Rickard Rakell could jump on with a full head of steam in the right direction as he received a picture perfect stretch pass from Getzlaf:
Looking forward to the Western Conference Final, it seems reasonable to posit that Anaheim will try to deploy a similar strategy against Nashville. For as well-rounded and balanced a team as they are, the Predators have a pretty clearly defined top scoring line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson that the Ducks will try to focus on neutralizing as much as possible.
The challenge Preds coach Peter Laviolette has ahead of him now is finding a way to: a) shake Johansen’s unit free from Kesler’s suffocating reach, and b) limit the cushy scoring opportunities for Getzlaf’s line. How successful Laviolette is in doing so will play a deciding role in determining which of the two teams will represent the Western Conference in this year’s Stanley Cup Final.