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The matchups used for Pens/Islanders so far

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Who played against who? What were the coaches trying to do? A look at the on ice times for Penguins vs. Islanders

NHL: MAY 16 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Islanders at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A big factor of playoff games is the “game within the game” of how Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and Islanders coach Barry Trotz are moving their pieces. The first two games were in Pittsburgh, where Sullivan had the advantage to see which players Trotz was selecting for faceoffs before sending out the players he wanted to use. That shifts with the series to become Trotz’s edge in Games 3 and 4.

What happened in Games 1 and 2? Who was playing against who? Here’s the visuals for the first two games from Hockey Viz:

Let’s take a peak an a deeper dive for less visual and more data for the totals of the first two games (via Natural Stat Trick). As an explainer, this is broken out by most common forward or defense opponent, a refresher of that can be seen in the preview. Since lines for both teams have remained very constant, we’ll skip past all the common linemates and jump to the player on the next different line. (I.e. Sidney Crosby played Ryan Pulock more than Nick Leddy, but to get a better sense of which lines were on the ice at the same time, we’ll add the context to omit Pulock, since his TOI comes in a little under his partner, Pelech. So you can consider Pulock to be one and the same as the #1D matchup for Crosby. Rinse and repeat for all other lines.)

We’re also just going to breakout by the centers of each line, for simplicity and clarity’s sake.

Most common matchups for first two games, by center

Player 5v5 TOI #1F Matchup TOI #1D Matchup TOI #2F Matchup TOI #2D Matchup TOI
Player 5v5 TOI #1F Matchup TOI #1D Matchup TOI #2F Matchup TOI #2D Matchup TOI
Sidney Crosby 35:31 J.G. Pageau 13:43 Adam Pelech 23:07 Josh Bailey 9:31 Nick Leddy 8:33
Jeff Carter 31:18 Brock Nelson 10:43 Scott Mayfield 13:43 Jordan Eberle 9:40 Andy Greene 13:25
Frederick Gaudreau 21:37 Casey Cizikas 7:48 Adam Pelech 7:43 Oliver Wahlstrom 6:07 Nick Leddy 7:40
Teddy Blueger 30:19 Mat Barzal 14:10 Nick Leddy 12:45 Anthony Beauvillier 7:57 Noah Dobson 11:42
Mat Barzal 33:31 Teddy Blueger 14:10 Kris Letang 16:10 Jeff Carter 8:28 Mike Matheson 11:48
Brock Nelson 29:18 Jeff Carter 10:43 Brian Dumoulin 11:57 Bryan Rust 9:12 Mike Matheson 10:07
J.P Pageau 30:16 Bryan Rust 14:31 Kris Letang 14:48 Zach Aston-Reese 7:05 Mike Matheson 10:25
Casey Cizikas 24:52 Jason Zucker 9:54 Mike Matheson 10:19 Jeff Carter 7:15 Marcus Pettersson 8:21

All of these numbers and data aside, what are some takeaways to gleam from this information?

The Penguins miss Evgeni Malkin

By TOI, the least used 5v5 line for both teams is the Jason Zucker, Frederick Gaudreau, Evan Rodrigues trio. And by quite a bit for the Pens, Gaudreau (21 5v5 minutes) has been used signicantly less than Teddy Blueger (30), Jeff Carter (31) or Sidney Crosby (35). The Pens are leaning on Carter perhaps a bit more than expected a few weeks ago, but it’s by necessity with Evgeni Malkin out. It’s an obvious statement, but still one that should be said out loud anyways: the absence of Malkin has been a major factor in this series.

Crosby line vs. Pelech/Pulock is the title fight

The Islanders were on the road, but still had Adam Pelech on the ice for about 65% of the time that Crosby was on the ice at 5v5. Pittsburgh can double shift Crosby at times, and use him when NYI ices the puck and gets players trapped on the ice for a Pens’ o-zone faceoff and some other tricks, but they can’t really run too much from their top line seeing a lot of the Islanders’ best defenders. It’ll be interesting to see if this percentage of time increases further in Games 3 and 4 with New York getting last change.

Pageau the main Crosby forward checker

Trotz had opted to start Casey Cizikas for the opening faceoff for period one in Games 1 and 2, but then frequently shifted to start Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the start of periods. Mike Sullivan 99% of his days starts the game/period with Crosby’s line. Sullivan started Crosby every 5v5 period start so far, even seeing Pelech/Pulock on the ice. Sullivan will have that opening move in Game 3: does he start Crosby and Letang (answer is going to be almost assuredly yes).

So how does Trotz want to respond? Will he stick with Pageau? Send a message and go with Barzal? Stay stubborn and use the Cizikas energy line in hopes that they bring the heat at home from the start to set the tone? Who starts a period doesn’t make or break a whole game, but it will be an interesting insight into how Trotz will take command of the matchups that he will be dictating for the next two games.

Barzal getting fed into the Buzzsaw

The Pens were able to have Blueger on the ice against Mat Barzal for 42% of Barzal’s ice time. This strategy has been aces so far for Pittsburgh, as their buzzsaw line has controlled play against the NYI top line. This might be an area that Trotz can manipulate a bit to get his top forwards some more time away, but he won’t be able to shield them completely. Overall Barzal has played the 14ish minutes against Blueger, 8 and change against Carter, 6 against Crosby and 5 vs. Gaudreau. NYI would probably love to get them more against Gaudreau, but that can’t happen when the Pens are heavily emphasizing just three lines (see top note).

Pittsburgh heavily, HEAVILY leaning on top 4 defense

In many stretches early, the Pens have basically gone to four defensemen at even strength. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of both team’s defensemen 5v5 time on ice through two games:

Usage-wise, Pittsburgh is going with two pairs getting top pair minutes, and then a heavily sheltered final pair barely picking up the scraps. Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci are playing basically as much as the NYI first pair of Pelech and Pulock.

Can this continue? Brian Dumoulin has been taking a beating already, getting hit in the ankle with a shot and then taking a scary crash into the boards. The more minutes he logs, the more risk of incurring damage, and the same applies to the other top players.

As such, for the NYI matchups, the Penguins have basically been able to play either the Dumo/Letang or Matheson/Ceci pair against the three best NYI lines. When Pettersson/Marino get thrown over the boards, often it’s been to match the Cizikas line that has the least amount of skill and offensive ability.

Much like Gaudreau, Trotz can’t exploit Sullivan’s weak link if Sullivan refuses to play it. But how long can Pittsburgh be asking their top four to carry such a massive burden? So far the strategy has worked very well for the Pens, especially since Matheson/Ceci have performed strongly.

Teams have to drain the tanks in the playoffs, and Game 1 going to overtime only has made the ice time even higher for everyone, but needless to say how Sullivan is choosing to deploy his defenseman will be interesting to watch on the road. If Pittsburgh can get a bit of a comfortable lead and more evenly distribute the ice time within a game, that would be a best case scenario for multiple reasons.