The Detroit/Phoenix series is now a thing of the past, with the Red Wings making short work of the Coyotes. Yet there are a few rather interesting things to learn from how things went, and one of them relates to home ice advantage and the ability of the coaches of each team to get the matchups they want.
The Red Wings’ checking line of Kris Draper, Patrick Eaves and Darren Helm provide a useful case in point.
We’ll use Draper, the veteran checker, as a proxy for the line. Totals mentioned below are his, but they’re similar for all three players.
The first thing worth noting is where this line was played: by and large, in the defensive zone. For every game in this series, both home and away, that remained true. Mike Babcock was always able to control where he played the line, and he almost always chose to use them in their own end.
What did change was who they played against.
In Games One and Two, played in Detroit, Mike Babcock had his choice of matchups. In the first contest, Babcock used Draper and company the most against the Kyle Turris line, but they played at least a minute against everybody, with three exceptions: Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, and Eric Belanger – Phoenix’s top line, in other words. it was almost the same situation in the second game, as Babcock avoided Doan and Belanger (although Draper ended up on the ice for a few minutes against Whitney).
In Games Three and Four, Dave Tippett got to dictate the matchups, and he threw Doan and the top line against Draper’s checking line. In fact, over the last two games, Draper was more likely to be on the ice with Doan than he was with any other Coyotes’ forward.
It’s an interesting example of how a typical checking line operates in the NHL today – in an era where power vs. power is the norm, where a line plays is often a better definition of their role than who they play. All year, Babcock has employed Draper as a defensive zone specialist, but he’s avoided playing him against top opponents.
Still, Tippett’s strategy didn’t work here – Draper’s line more than held their own against the Coyotes’ best, offering some hope that they’ll be up to the task when they’re inevitably called upon to play the best again in these playoffs.