Flyers vs. Penguins, 2012 NHL Playoffs: Line Matching In The '11-'12 Season Series

April 1, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers center Zac Rinaldo (36) and Flyers center Maxime Talbot (27) and Flyers defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon (43) talk before a face-off against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Philadelphia Flyers won 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

One nice thing about having the first round playoff matchup nearly locked in is that we have plenty of time to take a thorough look at how the Flyers and Penguins have matched up this year. Yeah, it'll be wasted effort if New Jersey passes the Flyers down the stretch, but playing Florida instead of Pittsburgh would be more than adequate consolation for the lost time.

I am still haunted by the Flyers' epically bad use of home-ice advantage in last year's playoffs. The Flyers seemed to be actively trying to get Danny Briere on the ice against Zdeno Chara, perhaps thinking that Briere's quickness might prevail. What actually happened is that Chara (and Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton) muscled Briere around the ice and dominated the play -- at 5-on-5, Briere was on the ice for seven goals against and zero goals for in the four-game series.

I wanted to look at what Peter Laviolette has done against the Penguins so far this year. I dug through the head to head ice time charts on timeonice.com and the play by plays from NHL.com to see what the matchups have been and how they have gone. Details after the jump.

Giroux

Claude Giroux is awesome. We know it, Lavvy knows it, and the Penguins know it. If the regular season matchup means anything (this is where you insert the standard disclaimers about reading too much into extremely tiny sample sizes), the playoff series could hinge on how Giroux gets deployed.

In Philadelphia, the Flyers tried hard to put Giroux against the Penguins' top line -- Sidney Crosby when he was playing, or Evgeni Malkin when Crosby was out. At 5-on-5, 52% of Giroux's ice time was against the Penguins' top line. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins primarily used Jordan Staal against Giroux, reducing Giroux's ice time against the top line to 23%.

Why is there such a big difference? The neutral analyst would say that by matching Staal up with Giroux, the Penguins are taking advantage of Staal's defensive strengths. I prefer to view it a bit differently; I think they needed to hide Crosby and Malkin from Giroux because although those two are decent players, Giroux's line flat-out dominated them this year.

vs Crosby vs Malkin vs Staal
With Giroux 55.0% 64.8% 48.7%
Without Giroux 26.9% 46.3% 40.0%

Flyers' Corsi (adjusted for zone starts) against Penguins' top lines

This table uses Corsi shot differential to assess how well the Flyers are controlling the play, and it includes an adjustment that accounts for teams' tendency to get shots after an offensive zone faceoff.

The results above are why I say the series could turn on Giroux's usage. In some sort of high-stakes game of roshambo, Giroux neutralizes Crosby but Staal neutralizes Giroux. Whoever controls Giroux's matchups most effectively will have a big edge.

Couturier

Next up on the defensive stopper list for the Flyers is Sean Couturier. Interestingly, both teams seem content with the matchup he has had -- in the games in Philadelphia, he was matched up against Malkin 64% of the time, and in the games in Pittsburgh he was matched up with Malkin 67% of the time.

So far, Couturier has largely held his own against Malkin. The table above told us that the Flyers got just under half of the shots (after adjusting for zone starts) when they matched someone other than Giroux against Malkin. When Couturier's line is the one being used, the Flyers got 45.1% of the shots, right in line with the rest of the team's results.

The Penguins have just put Malkin out for offensive zone faceoffs and let the matchups fall where they may -- he's had 33 offensive zone draws and just 6 defensive zone draws. Despite Couturier's defensive success thus far, the Penguins seemed content to test whether the teenager could hold up against one of the league's best players.

By and large, he has passed that test; something to watch in the playoffs is whether they continue to let the Flyers dictate this matchup or start working to get Malkin against the Flyers forwards with less defensive skill.

Briere

Briere's usage has been the inverse of Giroux's; in Philadelphia, the Flyers matched him up with Pittsburgh's third line, but in Pittsburgh the Penguins have used their top line against him.

vs PIT top line vs PIT third line
Giroux home 52% 17%
Briere home 20% 47%
Giroux road 23% 54%
Briere road 39% 20%

Fraction of Flyers' ice time against specific Penguins lines

It is easy to understand why the Flyers try to keep Briere away from Malkin and Crosby: Briere's lack of defensive skill makes him an utter liability against such strong players. The Flyers' adjusted Corsi when he is on the ice against one of them is an abysmal 31.7%.

Briere has not had a good year by any measure, either in point totals or in the non-traditional stats. He has been particularly bad against Pittsburgh, and a complete liability against their top lines. Hopefully he will live up to his reputation as a playoff performer and elevate his game when they need him in April.

The Defense

The defensive pairings have been shuffled a lot as a result of injury and trade, but there are a few things worth noting:

  • As was the case all year, the Flyers have consistently used Kimmo Timonen's pairing against the Penguins' top line and Matt Carle against the Penguins' second line.
  • Much has been made of the importance of Grossmann shadowing Malkin, but the Flyers' adjusted Corsi with the two of them on the ice was 41.4%. (Some might prefer to look at Fenwick because of Grossmann's perceived proficiency as a shot-blocker, but that looks even worse; the Flyers' adjusted Fenwick with Grossman and Malkin on the ice was 33.0%.
  • If Timonen can't play 40 minutes per game, the Flyers may be better off using him against Malkin than against Crosby. Timonen has had little impact on Crosby's line -- the Flyers' adjusted Corsi against Crosby was almost the same with Timonen (36.5%) or without him (32.9%). However, the Flyers have been much more successful against Malkin when Timonen was on the ice (80.1%) than when he was not (41.3%).

Conclusion

This looks like a classic playoff battle in the making between two teams that have no business meeting in the first round, and if the season series means anything, it may come down to the matchups.

Giroux's ability to carry the play against anyone in the world means the Flyers should have the better of things when the two-way forwards match up against the scorers (Giroux-Crosby, Couturier-Malkin, Staal-Briere). However, Briere's weakness defensively means that the Flyers may be exposed when the scorers and two-way guys are segregated (Briere-Crosby, Giroux-Staal).

I'll be watching closely to see how both teams manage the rotations to get the favorable matchups.

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