Mon May 17 03:02pm EDT
Matching forward lines is the biggest boondoggle in the coach's manual.
And for the teams that lost their series opener, the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens, constantly worrying about matching lines is going to sink their ships. The Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks are far too deep up front to stress out about one line. In these series, San Jose and Montreal specifically are finally going to have to make the adjustment to focus on themselves. You have to be able to win multiple ways to win the Stanley Cup, and that's a style of play we haven't had to see from the Habs yet.
Worrying too much about your opponent -- and abandoning your own strengths -- can bury you.
If one of your lines is always to be out against your opponent's top line, it takes all 12 forwards to keep a lookout for those top dogs. This means the focus of all four lines is occupied by a tiny distraction, like, say, trying to watch sports while your fiancée is watching the E! channel on picture-in-picture.
If you see The Line That Shall Be Matched while you're out there and you're not on The Line That Shall Be Matching, you stop focusing on making good plays, and start focusing on getting off the ice. Consider that ice-time wasted, for you and your team.
And in turn, the other coach runs your bench. It's pretty rare that a coach will choose to match a top line with his own top line (as we saw in the Sharks/Hawks first game), so for the most part, the other coach has the power to make you play one of your lesser, more defensive lines for more of the game than you'd like, which makes it harder to produce your own offense.
Worst of all, as we've seen an exceptional 30-plus times, it increases the odds of a "too-many-men" penalty by just over 10 kabillion percent.
And really, does it make much of a difference to have forwards matching forwards? In the defensive zone, the only forward that makes much of a difference is the centerman who's down low battling in the 3-on-3 game-within-a-game. Your wingers are stuck up high, dealing with defensemen. And anyone can clog up the neutral zone. So why are we doing this again? For one guy?
A quality defense pairing, as we saw from the Montreal Canadiens in the early rounds, can make a difference. They can use good gap control, punishing body checks and responsible positioning to frustrate their opponents' top line. And since defensemen generally take longer shifts, and are only a pair instead of a trio, it's a lot easier to deal with matching your d-pair vs. a forward line than a forward line vs. a forward line.
But it still borderlines on useless stress when your opponent isn't a one-line team.
NBC's Pierre McGuire prattling on about it is grossly exaggerating its importance, especially on the Blackhawks game-winning goal by Dustin Byfuglien(notes). It's not like Rob Blake(notes) is notorious for a bad gap, or Dany Heatley(notes) always misreads plays -- it was just one of those stuck-in-the-middle ordeals where an unlikely guy scored a lengthy slapper. It's not chess. Hell, it's not even as strategic as football.
Philly and Chicago's forwards are too deep to pick a guy to shut down, so it's time for Montreal/San Jose to switch their focus to what's happening on their own side for a series.
They're going against the supposed "lesser goalies" -- who, coincidentally, are the same two who owned both game ones -- so they're going to need to concentrate on generating even more chances. They need to trust in their own depth and goaltending to play team defense, then find a way to get it done at the offensive end if they hope to bounce back in each of their conference finals.