Why Ottawa's depth is important to the Sens success vs. Habs
By now, most of you have already read some form of preview that covers the basic storylines of the Sens - Habs series. In case you haven't, take a look at this storystream, or check out the links in this post.
The star power in this series, along with the narratives that come with playing a hated division rival, are already set and in motion. There's two star defensemen, the league's number one goaltender vs. the hotshot newcomer, the focus on Mark Stone's play and how Max Pacioretty's injury will affect the series. What hasn't been discussed in length, though, is the play of the respective depth forwards and defensemen on these two teams, and it's these players that will be the focus of this article.
The wonderful @datarink put together a tool that captures some of the underlying numbers in the four games that the Sens and Habs played against each other this season. I'm going to note right away that this is by no means predictive of how these same matchups will play out over the next two weeks, but rather, descriptive of how these matchups played out previously. The colour of the bubble represents how well that player did against another player in terms of winning the shot attempt battle when they were on the ice, per minute. On the website, you can click through and see that when Karlsson was on the ice against P.K. Subban (top left bubble), the shot attempts were 42-27 in favour of Ottawa. If the bubble is coloured red/orange, Ottawa won the possession battle with that player on the ice, and if it's blue, Montreal won the possession battle. The +/- on the axes represent the sum of that player's total impact on possession, so we can see for Karlsson that overall, when he was on the ice against Montreal, Ottawa had 33 more shot attempts - a significant number.
Other than showing off cool data visualization, the reason why I'm showing you this is so you can see that overall, Ottawa dominated the possession battle over the four games this season. However, the data also shows us that this possession advantage is mainly driven by the success of a few key players: the top D pairing of Marc Methot and Erik Karlsson, and the success of Ottawa's depth forwards: Milan Michalek, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Alex Chiasson, and David Legwand. Why have they played so well against the Habs?
One of the reasons, which you can see in the datarink graphic, is due to matchups. Let's look at Alex Chiasson. When he played against Subban and Markov, he was mostly held in check - the bubble colour is grey, signifying an even shot attempt differential battle. As you scroll across though, you can see that Chiasson and his linemate, David Legwand, feasted on the Habs third pair of Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert. What looks like a solid, puck-moving third pair has struggled this season, with the steady Gilbert, who's often an underrated possession player, putting up a 46% Corsi this year. Was that just because of a small sample matchup? Has the Habs depth pairing been worrisome all season?
Now I apologize for the confusion you may experience now with colours, but in this graphic from War On Ice, a red bubble means that when player X was on the ice, he was outshot (with blue being good, signifying puck possession). I went through and labeled the Habs 3rd and 4th lines, in addition to their bottom two pairings with red text boxes. As you can see, the third pair actually looks a bit better here using full season totals, especially in comparison with the second pair, but three of the four defensemen are in the red. The Habs bottom two lines also don't look very good, with the 4th line getting a ton of defensive zone starts and performing badly, in order to free up Montreal's top six and top pair to do work in the offensive zone.
In comparison to the Sens depth, you can see that Ottawa has a lot more good possession players (blue bubbles) relative to the team in their bottom two lines and defense pairings. The fact that Dave Cameron is scratching some of the worst players on the team (Smith, Greening, Neil, Cowen) is maybe a hint that he pays attention to this sort of stuff, and opens up opportunity for Patrick Wiercioch and Mike Hoffman to be really important players in this series.
The last thought I have is around the deployment of these players. In game 1 and 2, Cameron will have to be comfortable rolling all four lines and three pairings with limited control over the matchups, but at home, he has a couple of curious decisions he could make. If you go back to the datarink graphic, you can see that the top pair of Markov - Subban, and the top-six players like Plekanec and Gallagher (who are now lined up with Alex Galchenyuk thanks to the Pacioretty injury) won the possession battle against the Turris - Stone line, but were held even by the Pageau line. Is this a small sample thing, or is this a matchup that can be exploited? In addition, Cameron's usage of the Borowiecki - Gryba pairing will be big. If caught out against Montreal's top six and Markov - Subban, something Therrien will likely look for in the first two games, Ottawa may be in some trouble as that pairing is consistently the worst possession wise, and performed the worse in the four games against Montreal.
In conclusion, Ottawa's depth have the ability to turn the tide of the series in favour of the Senators. Montreal's bottom two pairings, despite being bolstered by the trade deadline acquisition of Jeff Petry, are consistently in the red, and their ultra-defensive usage of their 4th line is something that can perhaps be exploited by the offensive duo of Wiercioch - Ceci and the strong play of Ottawa's depth forwards like Mike Hoffman, Jean Gabriel-Pageau, and Alex Chiasson against Montreal. How these players are deployed in the first two games will be interesting to look at, especially if the Pageau line emerges as a shutdown line against Montreal's top-six, and may open up some room for Mika Zibanejad and co. to get favourable matchups against the opposition.
Thanks for reading!