With the Capitals defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, they can finally concentrate on the inevitable. It has been a playoff match-up that, because Gary Bettman and his cronies just can not ever understand how to make a fair playoff system, has been about as forthcoming since the entire hockey season started since all the way back in October. I’ll write my second round preview soon, but for the second straight season, there isn’t a better series you will find in not only this stage in the postseason, but probably the rest of the NHL season all together.
That alone has to be a wake up call to Bettman as to why on Earth can he just time and again ignore the significant issue that the two best teams left are playing each other in the second round and not in, oh I don’t know, the Stanley Cup Final at best?!?! You’re telling me with a straight face that you’re pleased to see a weaker St. Louis Blues team or a completely anonymous Ottawa Senators team have so many issues in the 82-game regular season and then find a way to go further in the playoffs than a significantly better Penguins or Capitals team? How about an Edmonton Oilers team that certainly is talented, but is just one too many pieces away in defense away from winning it all this early in their current iteration? I’m fine with Nashville and maaaaaaaaaybe the New York Rangers, but don’t leave this piece thinking the analytics community will completely agree with you on that. Just ask anybody in that circle how they feel about any of the Predators’ fourth line players or any of the Rangers’ defensemen and come back to me if you feel like there’s an en-masse agreement that they deserve a Stanley Cup Finals appearance instead of Washington or Pittsburgh.
Welp, here we are folks and that is not going to change certainly this year. So what better time than to talk about how the Capitals regrouped from their two games to one deficit and what will it take to go toe-to-toe against Pittsburgh. Simply put, there was no other first round series that was as end to end than the Capitals-Maple Leafs series. The eye test should agree with that and the stats do too. When you adjust for score, zone and venue, the 133.65 shot-attempts Toronto and Washington generated per hour at even strength was easily the highest of any playoff matchup this postseason. The next closest total was the Canadiens-Rangers series at 127.64.
In all fairness, almost every playoff series except the Senators-Bruins matchup was played above the regular season league average pace of about 106 to 110 shot attempts per hour. So clearly, the postseason as forced teams to play with higher tempo and more pizzazz. That leads us to Nate Schmidt.
With the entire sport going for speed and skill instead of heavy hitting brutality, why not find the proper defensemen that can play this style of play. For the Capitals, the most obvious players to meet this requirement are John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov coming into the regular season. With Kevin Shattenkirk added at the trade deadline, it gave head coach Barry Trotz four mobile puck movers for him to work with. The problem, as it has been stated in this blog before, is that it unintentionally forced Trotz to move a possible fifth mobile defensemen to the press box.
By adding Shattenkirk, Trotz and general manager Brian McClellan got what they wanted in their ideal scenario. They got three NHL caliber defensemen that can play right-handed and left-handed each. Since handedness is the ideal way to go when it comes to pairing defensemen these modern times, Trotz decided it was best to give the right-handed Shattenkirk a sweater as Washington’s third defense partner for the less mobile, much older and left-handed Brooks Orpik. This left the left-handed Schmidt to the press box despite delivering an on-ice shot attempt ratio of 56.3% with Orpik and limit the opposition with 46.4 on-ice shot attempts per hour at even strength. Simply put, it is very difficult to find many defense pairings playing with well all regular season.
Meanwhile, Karl Alzner, back from recovering from sports hernia surgery after being injured in the Penguins series last year, got significantly worse. Yes, he was on the verge of hitting 500 consecutive NHL games played, but it has been quite clear that the left-handed veteran is [currently] no longer the player he once was from previous season. That is why it has been so unfathomable that Schmidt has been scratched over him, regardless of pedigree. When you are trying to win a Stanley Cup after tripping on so many hurdles so many times, making evidence-based calls correctly is so critical for finally getting over the hump.
History shows that Trotz has never done that in his tenure in Washington. With Alzner out with an upper body injury, Schmidt finally got his chance and played really well. Just look at this beauty of an assist that he delivered in the start of Game 3. Name me any other defensemen on this team that can skate through the neutral zone and through a nifty pass like that. You can’t.
With two assists, a team-leading +5 plus-minus and team-high even strength adjusted on-ice shot attempt rates of 76.9 per hour for and 52.3 per hour against, why would you make him a healthy scratch ever again? With Alzner getting healthier, Trotz will have to make the most important call of his coaching career. Do you start a healthier, younger, faster and more mobile skater in Schmidt or do you play the more experienced, tried-and-trusted but more limited option in Alzner? Since you were so concerned about Alex Ovechkin getting more playing time, do you make the best with both worlds by playing seven defensemen and 11 forwards?
Either way, nothing seems ideal beyond the obvious. Trotz has to play his best team and if he ever wants to do that, it will have to be playing Nate Schmidt as a top four defensemen for the rest of the playoffs, no matter what.