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The Hard Match: Trying to Shut Down the Top Line

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Boucher hard matched a 5 man unit against the Bruins top line - should he keep doing it?

Boston Bruins v Ottawa Senators - Game One Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

The Bruins line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak could barely get away from the full five man unit of Tom Pyatt, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mike Hoffman, Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf. Of 55 events (not just shot attempts, but everything - faceoffs, whistles, hits, etc) that the Boston trio were on the ice for, 39 of them were against those five players. Another nine (none shot attempts for Boston) were with four of those five players on the ice. There were only two events - a hit and a shot, both by Ottawa - with none of those five Senators on the ice.

They had to be getting sick of seeing those five faces. Until.

That last shift with all of those players out on the ice. Oh my goodness. A brutal stretch of play with multiple failed clearing attempts and six attempts on goal for Boston, including the winning goal.

All told, there are some questions that need to be asked before game two.

How did that hard match-up work until that point?

Not terribly, I guess? It was a bit of a mixed bag.

Offensively, it was absolutely dismal. A single (missed) shot through the first 56 minutes of play and change during the hard match. That’s not great, and leads to a positively terrible CF% - but the point of the hard match here isn’t to generate offence, but to shut down Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak.

Up to the 56 minute mark, Boston’s top line managed 8 shot attempts in roughly 11 minutes of 5 on 5 play, about 9 minutes of that against the 5-man Ottawa unit. As a rate, that’s around 53-54 shot attempts per 60 minutes during the hard match.

5v5 Gameflow, with added red/grey line isolating the hard match

To provide context: Boston’s regular season average was around 60 per 60 minutes of play. Ottawa’s season average for allowing shot attempts was a bit under 59 per 60 minutes. Already an improvement. The season average for Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak was around 74 attempts per 60 minutes. Cutting that trio’s attempts by about 27% is nothing to sneeze at. In terms of being dangerous, not a single one of those eight attempts actually made it to Anderson - two went wide of the net from 40+ feet out, the other six were blocked. No rebounds, no shots off the rush.

(Unfortunately, without breaking down video it’s hard to say how dangerous those blocked shots were - one was a wrap around, but the other five could have come from anywhere. But in general, blocked shots usually aren’t coming from the doorstep.)

Not a single shot that registered as high danger in there, through 56 minutes of regular shifts.

Defensively, they were doing their job better than expected - for most of the game, which we’ll come back to later.

What effect did it have on the rest of the lineup?

You gobble up the hard minutes against the opposing team’s top line, it’s bound to have an impact.

Every Sens forward apart from Pyatt, Pageau and Hoffman were north of 50% Corsi, and almost every Bruins player apart from Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak were sub-50%. Mark Stone and Kyle Turris ran complete roughshod over the Bruins second line. Bobby Ryan, Derick Brassard and Clarke MacArthur had solid showings over largely the second and third lines.

The hard matching let Ottawa dominate just about every other match-up, and was likely a big part of the second period performance. From the perspective of the other lines, it let them go to town.

Is it the best use of these players?

More specifically - with the almost complete lack of offensive output, is it wasting Mike Hoffman?

A little bit, yeah, but not as much as you might think.

First, it’s no surprise that the one shot attempt with the hard matching was from Hoffman. And he didn’t spend the entire night on shutdown duty either - he had the second most time on the power play, was one of the five forwards out with the net empty, with a little bit of time with Turris and Stone at 5 on 5 reducing the impact somewhat as well. All told he had 5 individual attempts across all strengths, and his season average was 5.6 per game.

Keep giving him power play time, and some spot duty on HST, and the offensive price of the shutdown role becomes more manageable. Still, it’s still a price and if you think you can swap him out for someone with less offensive upside and still have the match-up work, you have to consider it.

Okay - what happened on the last shift?

From the numbers, it was six shot attempts and a pair of giveaways (by NHL counts - Boucher said the coaching staff counted four turnovers) in about 1:15 of play. That 54 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play from the first 56 minutes rocketed up to 82 attempts per 60 minutes for the game.

And, of course, the winning goal. There’s no spinning this stretch of play positively.

Practically, they got hemmed in. Clearing attempts turned into turnovers, and tired legs got caught following the puck a bit too much on the goal. The coverage on Marchand was less than stellar giving him enough space to quickly bury it while the Sens were scrambling to stop him.

The million dollar question is this: how much of that one shift was correctable mistakes, and how much of it was Boston finding a way to break the blockade?

Sadly, I don’t have an answer to that. It’s a question for people who are far better at breaking down video and systems than I am, and I bet the Senators coaching staff has watched that shift (and the shift on the first Boston goal) a few hundred times since last night to make sure they’ve got the answer.

If they decide it’s correctable, expect to see this strategy again on Saturday. If that happens, let’s just hope they fixed the problem.