Neutral Zone Defense may be the death of the injured Islanders.

Quick little post here and before I begin, let me say that the game was a lot closer than the SOG total looked through 2 periods, with the key difference being the Isles missing the net constantly while the Caps got their unblocked shots on net.  So the following is not suggesting the Isles were dominated (they actually were in Game 2, by contrast).

Game 5 showcased a major problem with the loss of Lubomir Visnovsky (and then later Calvin de Haan), one which is talked about little when talking about Lubo’s skillset.  That problem is this:  without Visnovsky, the Isles’ ability to prevent opponents from entering the zone with speed, via carry-in instead of dump-in, was greatly diminished.

Why was this?  Well, part of this is a failure of coaching – players are often taught to be conservative – when facing a rushing opponent with even numbers, they are taught to back off and try to prevent them from getting a shot off in the Defensive Zone, or to block any shots they take.  The issue is that this is a flawed strategy – it allows the opponent into your own zone in the first place!  A more effective strategy is to actually try to challenge at or before the line and prevent the carry-in.  Alex Ovechkin’s release is so fast that backing up likely gives him the very room he needs to get a shot off, even if it’s not the best shot he can get.  But if you prevent Ovechkin from getting INTO the zone, he can’t shoot at all.

Better players are more willing to challenge – they know their skill can cover for them if they fail and trust themselves to accomplish their goal.  Lesser players are less willing – hence Brian Strait or Andrew MacDonald’s tendency to back up.  (Travis Hamonic does this as well, take of that what you will).  Visnovsky, Leddy and to a lesser extent Boychuk all are strong at this skill, as has been Calvin de Haan at times (although less so in these playoffs).

Without Visnovsky and without de Haan, you suddenly have two pairs who are scared to challenge and let the Caps come in on the rush.  As you saw, that is incredibly dangerous.

Can this be fixed?  Well, back in the WHL Final last year, Griffin Reinhart was the best on his team at breaking up opposing carry-ins.  He hasn’t been good at it in the limited sample so far, but maybe he can regain that skill at the NHL level.  Ryan Pulock’s style would seem to possibly be like that of Visnovsky (at least from descriptions) so maybe he can do it.  Regardless, if the team doesn’t do that, they’re going to need some good shooting and poor goaltending from Holtby to carry through.  Not what I want to bet on at this point.

The Isles don’t need vengeance. They need More Speed.

We now pray for the health of Lubomir Visnovsky.  In all honesty, it seemed likely he may have been concussed in game 3 but played through it due to a combination of a warrior mentality and the fact that this may be his last shot at the cup.  After game 4 and Tom Wilson (not to mention a boarding by Ovechkin), we fear the worst.  It’s possible he’s done for the playoffs, and maybe for his career.

If Visnovsky is out, this leaves the Isles at a crossroads.  The team is already short one right defenseman – Travis Hamonic – and is playing its worst D man on his off side as a result.  The team now has lost two, which gives them very few options.  It’s remaining healthy D practicing with the team are now:

Matt Donovan (a left handed stick who plays RD like Visnovsky)
Matt Carkner (Natural Right D)
Griffin Reinhart (Left D)
Ryan Pulock (Natural Right D)
Scott Mayfield (Natural Right D)

The temptation is probably high for the team to play Reinhart, Mayfield, or Carkner (probably Reinhart or Carkner), to add size to the lineup.  Carkner even plays Right-D.  After all, the Caps won that game while being incredibly physical – and the itch to enact vengeance for Lubo is only natural.

But that temptation is the path to further disaster.  The Isles have basically outplayed the Caps for 3/4 games this series.  How?  By outskating the Caps.  By using their speed and skill to skate around the Caps and pelt Holtby and Grubauer with shots.  This has worked.  And if not for some insane goaltending by Holtby, this series would be at 3-1.

Switching to a slower, bigger approach could possibly work – but it would be going away from what we know HAS worked.  That is by definition not smart – going for the two birds in the bush instead of the bird in the hand.  The Isles should attempt to keep with the speed lineup as much as possible.

To start: Lubo should be replaced by either Pulock or Donovan.  Donovan hasn’t played that well when in this year, and Pulock has no NHL experience, but both are experienced puck handlers who could play Right D in at least a facsimile of Lubo.  Pulock would even add to the power play that is hurt without Lubo and has so far proven toothless.

In addition, if Grabovski is concussion-symptom free, the team should insert him immediately (for Kennedy).  This will increase the time the Isles have in the offensive zone and add a better shooter than Kennedy to the lineup to capitalize on this, and suddenly will make the third line lethal.

The Isles can get vengeance still:  By winning.  Turning away from what has actually won to get vengeance in Game 5 might only give the Caps the last laugh.

Postseason Thoughts: Isles 2, Caps 1 – Score and Playoff Effects in this series.

Sorry for the long absence from this blog.  I’ll be adding short posts hopefully throughout the playoffs.

A pretty basic hockey analytics concept is that of “Score Effects.”  Basically, when teams go up, they start playing more defensively and pull back, resulting in less offensive presence as the team focuses on holding a lead.  Incidentally, this results in more shots against than playing normally (although the idea is that in theory, you allow worse off shots*).  And teams that are losing naturally take more shots as a result (and as a result of them being more desperate).

*Some work I’ve done suggests this doesn’t actually work.

None of score effects is particularly surprising to any hockey fan – especially Islanders fans, who have seen the team sit back on third period leads constantly this season (and past seasons).

The Capitals exhibit this score effect pattern as well, although their pattern is pretty….well extreme:

The above graph shows the Capitals’ shots for and against in different score situations, courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath on twitter).  The Caps are better than average by a little bit when the score is tied or within 1 goal (or up 2 goals), but during these situations, their numbers are pretty normal.

But when the Caps are down 2, they go INSANE.  The average team takes around 5 more shots per 60 minutes when down 2 than when tied – the Caps instead take nearly 15! more shots per 60.

So why does this matter?  Well Arik Parnass (@arikparnass on twitter) suggested in a Hockey Prospectus article recently (and his presentation at the DC Hockey Analytics Convention) that these effects also are felt in the playoffs based upon a team’s standing in a series – if a team is down in games, they act closer to if they’re down a goal in a hockey game and take more shots and if they’re up, they do the reverse.

I wonder if the Caps-Isles series has been a prime example of that – the Isles have dominated both games where the series was tied (games 1 and game 3), but were dominated themselves the game in which they had a 1-0 series lead (don’t let the score confuse you, that game was dominated by Washington).  And Washington is normally extremely affected by being down – is that why they were such a better team in game 2?

Well game 4 puts the Caps back in that situation.  If this is the case, the Isles better be ready, as a much better Caps team is about to come out of the gate.