When the Philadelphia Flyers manhandled the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 15, Flyers fans were re-introduced to the concept of line vs line and player vs player match-ups. Sean Couturier was matched up against Sidney Crosby for the weekend while Claude Giroux went head to head against Evgeni Malkin. When the Flyers faced off against the Chicago Blackhawks, Couturier’s line played across from Jonathan Toews and when the Flyers faced the Dallas Stars, Couturier and his line mates went head to head with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. These favorable match-ups led to the Flyers winning four straight home games against tough opponents.
To the fan with a keen eye, the game of match-ups has been around almost all season. It seems to be more talked about among fans when the Flyers play the Penguins, but Craig Berube has made favorable match-ups an integral part of his coaching philosophy. The Flyers have routinely placed Couturier against the opposing teams leading scorers this season, while also trying to get Giroux on the ice against mediocre defensemen. It’s how the game is played.
One of the determining factors in how the match-ups shake out in a given game is home ice. The coach of the home team has the final change and he can see who the opposition puts on the ice before sending out his players. Under Craig Berube the Flyers are 22-12-1 (.629 win %) at home and 16-12-6 (.471 win %) on the road. Although the Flyers are known to change lines mid-shift when on the road, to produce favorable match ups, it is clearly easier to gain the advantage when at home. In short, the Flyers need favorable match-ups if they want to be successful in the post season.
Let’s take a look at few games. All player deployment stats are available at ExtraSkater.com.
(When looking at the player match-ups grid for a given game, it is like looking at a line graph. Each player from team A is listed along the left hand side and each player from team B is listed along the top. The number of 5v5 minutes that those two players were on the ice together meets in the middle. Keep in mind this does not include power play, penalty kill, or 4v4 time, they are all 5v5 minutes. I implore you to check it out.)
First, let’s take a look at the game the Flyers played against the Penguins on March 15, a 4-0 victory. When looking at the player grid of that game, there are very few numbers that stick out. Most players have 2-6 minutes in common with each other. However, two numbers are way above the rest. Sidney Crosby spent 9.3 minutes against Braydon Coburn (the Flyers most mobile, defensive defenseman) and 9.4 minutes against Sean Couturier. Couturier’s line mates also had big even strength minutes against the Pens captain, Downie had 8.9 while Read had 7.6. The point is clear, Berube made sure that he got Couturier and Coburn out there while Crosby was on the ice. The result is clear as well: the Flyers dominated the game and Crosby was a non-factor. The chart can be seen here.
Now let’s look at last night. When the entire grid of the Flyers vs Rangers game is on your computer screen, two numbers immediately stand out. Claude Giroux played 10.9 minutes against Dan Girardi and 11.0 minutes against Ryan McDonagh. No one else in the game played double digit minutes against a single player on either team.
Alain Vigneault had a plan. His plan was to make sure his top defense pairing, which is one of the best in the NHL, was on the ice against Giroux. What was the result? Giroux had a quiet, frustrating game. In the meantime, Flyers fans had to listen to Pierre Mcguire say Ryan McDonagh’s name over and over and ov… you get the picture. Sean Couturier was only able to be on the ice against St. Louis, Stepan, and Nash for 5.7, 5.9, and 5.5 minutes respectively. Vigneault was able to shield his top scorers from the Flyers primary shut down unit. You can see the match up chart here.
Finally, let’s take a look at last time the Flyers played the Rangers in Philadelphia. The game was on March 1st and was a 4-2 Flyers victory. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh played 5.2 and 5.0 minutes respectively against Claude Giroux. The Rangers top line of Kreider, Stepan, and Nash were up against Couturier for 9.8, 9.3, and 8.7 minutes respectively. Ultimately, when Craig Berube had the final change against Alain Vigneault the Flyers came out on top. Giroux was shielded from the Rangers top defenders and the top Rangers scorers had to face Couturier all day long. The chart for this game can be found here.
After last night’s game, I have seen a lot of fans talk about their fear and dread of the Rangers. However, the fact that the home team won every game of this season series should tell us a lot about how the teams match up.
The Philadelphia Flyers currently have 83 points. The third place team in the entire Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens, have 89 points, yet they have played two more games than the Flyers. There is no way that the Flyers will catch either the Bruins or Penguins. However, the Canadiens are within striking distance if the Flyers can make a push. The Flyers play five of their final ten games at home, so it will be a tough road.
The Flyers would do well to make a push for third in the Eastern Conference, and at the very least, second in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers need home ice advantage in the post season. The Flyers thrive off of being able to match their shut down players against scorers and vice-versa. Whether or not the Flyers have home ice advantage in the playoffs could be the difference between a first round exit and making a decent playoff run.