The Stanley Cup playoffs are the annual spring rite of gamesmanship in ice hockey.
In addition to the head games, the actual games are often filled with matchups inside themselves.
For the Flyers, and specifically Sean Couturier’s checking line, a lot of time and energy has been spent getting matchups and shutting down the opposition’s key players.
It was apparent again on Tuesday night in Game 2. Couturier was to stick on Zach Parise like a vulture on a carcass. Look at the shift chart.
Parise took 25 shifts over 20:13 of ice time. Couturier was on the ice at the same time as Parise for 12 of those shifts. There were 7 other shifts in which Parise or Couturier were not on the ice at the same time, but there was a penalty. That leaves just 5 pure, even-strength shifts in which Couturier and Parise were not on the ice at the same time – and 3 of them occurred after the surging Devils already tied the game in the third period.
That is clearly the matchup coach Peter Laviolette wanted.
That allows the Devils to play their own matchup game. Claude Giroux was on the ice for 21 shifts over 21:05. Just 6 of those shifts were played without Marek Zidlicky and Adam Henrique in his grill.
Giroux was quiet. The playoffs’ leading scorer was held without a point for the first time since April 11, in Game 1 against Pittsburgh.
Now, with the series shifting to New Jersey, Devils coach Pete DeBoer will have the final say in the matchup game courtesy of the last change.
It’s tough to second guess Laviolette, with all of the success he’s had as an NHL coach. That is not the purpose of this post. It's impossible to know what kind of impact the matchups had on Giroux's game. His minutes were the fewest he's played since Game 4 against Pittsburgh.
Without Ilya Kovalchuk, there are two schools of thought. One is that it solidifies the matchup game, taking any doubt out of the equation as to which line the Flyers should target. Parise’s unit is the clear choice in that case.
The other, which we sit and wonder about on a slow Wednesday, is whether any of that stuff matters. With Kovalchuk out of the lineup, there is a clear and undeniable mismatch in the balance of talent between the two teams. It was necessary against Pittsburgh because they have three of the top centers - and two of the best players - in the NHL on different lines. That other school of thought is that you throw out the matchups and just play.
Either way, play is something the Flyers didn’t do. Matchups or not.
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