It's often called the game within the game -- the practice of coaches mixing and matching their lines to create favorable matchups. In the Rangers' playoff series against the Washington Capitals, the most scrutinized matchup -- by far -- has been that of No. 1 D Dan Girardi against the Caps' Alex Ovechkin. In order to free up his star scorer, Washington head coach Dale Hunter has utilized a slew of tactics, including short- and double-shifting the Great 8. But in Game 2 Hunter employed an even more intriguing strategy: Sitting Ovechkin on the bench.
Ovechkin skated just 13:36 Monday night, as Hunter rolled his more defensive-minded forwards to preserve an early 2-0 lead (which they gave away before Ovechkin salvaged the W with a late power-play game-winner). It was a coaching move that grabbed the media's attention across the continent, particularly considering it confined to the pine a two-time Hart Trophy winner who cashes over $9.5 million in paychecks a year.
Since the Capitals won Game 2 some pundits praised Hunter's handling of his offensively-gifted, defensively-lax star. But looking at the big picture it sure feels like it helps the Rangers a lot more than the Caps when Ovechkin is on the seated side of the boards.
Through two games this series, Ovechkin has been been pretty neutral at even strength. Per the data of ESPN Insider contributor Neil Greenberg, Ovechkin has recorded 7 even-strength scoring chances for while suffering 8 against him. What we are seeing with Ovechkin's diminished minutes though, is Girardi enjoying more effective ice time.
In Game 2, Girardi was on the ice for 5 even-strength Ranger scoring chances, compared to just 3 for the Caps. Of course, all three of those Washington scoring chances came with Ovechkin on the ice. But with Ovi on the bench and Girardi on the ice -- a span of about 7 minutes -- the Rangers generated 3 scoring chances and allowed none. In fact, whenever Girardi has been on the ice in Games 1 and 2, the Caps have failed to generate a single even-strength scoring chance without the help of Ovechkin. Simply put, Girardi and partner Ryan McDonagh are sweeping aside the non-Ovechkin opposition. And thanks to Hunter's strategy, they're now seeing far more of those easily defended forwards.
Hunter's decision to sit his star for long stretches is certainly counter-intuitive. But it appears it could be counterproductive for the Caps as well.