One thing that’s surprised me about the way that the Boston Bruins have been matching up this post-season is that Patrice Bergeron is getting a lot more time matched up against a single top opponent.
That wasn’t the case last year. Bergeron spent very little time matched up against Alexander Ovechkin during the Bruins’ playoff series last season against the Washington Capitals. During the first couple of games of the series, he saw lots of time matched up, but drew away from the match as the series shifted to Washington. Back in Boston for Games 5 and 7, still even less time spent against the Capitals’ most dangerous forward.
My sense this season is that while Zdeno Chara handles the ‘mano-a-mano’ minutes, Claude Julien is less scrupulous with the way he hands out his offensive minutes. Generally, Bergeron will get a lot of defensive zone faceoffs (he had just a 42.4% offensive zone start rate, 4th lowest among centremen with at least 14 minutes of time on ice per game) which will naturally line him up against top offensive players, but it isn’t a necessity.
Generally, I think the data bears this out. If you look at some top Eastern Conference forwards that played 48 games this regular season, you’ll find that they primarily played much more against Chara than Bergeron. Eric Staal played 31:35 against Zdeno Chara at even strength, 3rd among non-Southeast Division defenceman, and just 6:40 of time against Bergeron. John Tavares played 35:38 against Chara, 2nd among non-Atlantic Division defencemen, and just 11:09 vs. Bergeron. Phil Kessel was up a lot against Chara, 32:36 which is 4th in the Conference, but just 17:15 against Bergeron, his 36th most common matchup. (Those are coming from Hockey Analysis’ player pages)
This could be just a quirk, because the opposition tries hard to get matches away from Bergeron and Julien doesn’t worry enough to keep them going. Chara plays so many minutes he’s bound to get a whole lot of them against top players, but because the Bruins are so deep at forward, there isn’t as much urgency to avoid a shift by a top player against the Bruins’ 3rd or 4th line. It isn’t the desired outcome, but not horrible. Gregory Campbell’s Corsi this season was -2.03 and Shawn Thornton’s was -2.80, which appears to be on the higher-end for fourth line players.
But in the playoffs, it looks as if Claude Julien is working harder to get Bergeron out against opposition’s top players. I broke it down using the timeonice.com scripts, looking at the percentage both Chara and Bergeron spent playing against top opponents on the road:
I generally used centremen as a proxy for time spent against a forward line, but Randy Carlyle shifted around his centremen a lot so for Games 3 and 4 (1 and 2 on the graph) I used Joffrey Lupul as the proxy for the Leafs top line. For Game 6 of that series (3 on this graph) when Tyler Bozak was hurt, Nazem Kadri replaced him on the top line so I used him.
But here’s the thing: on the road, Bergeron has matched up 65.3% of his ice-time against first or second lines. At home, it’s up to 82.6%. That’s an indication that Julien is really working to get those matches and is having an easier time at home when he has last change.
Turn to the sixth road game the Bruins have played this playoff, which is Game 1 against the Penguins. Chara played 38.4% of his minutes against Sidney Crosby and 48.8% against Evgeni Malkin. Bergeron was somewhat the reverse, 57.3% against Crosby and 20.0% against Malkin.
So it’s fun to see how these little moving parts work in harmony. While the Bruins won the game 3-0, the score wasn’t reflective of the game, which was much more even. The Bruins were just +4 in Corsi, registering 36 even strength shot attempts to Pittsburgh’s 32.
However, the differences between Pittsburgh’s top players and Boston’s are pretty stark. The Penguins second line with Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal, for instance, had Corsi numbers of minus-6, minus-8 and minus-7 respectively, while the Bruins’ second line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic went plus-3, plus-eight, plus-eight.
The Bruins’ top defenceman Chara was a plus-one, while Kris Letang went minus-nine. It’s not hard to guess which players were out with which, and the Penguin’s clearest objective going into Game 2 is going to be to minimize Malkin’s minutes against Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, or figure out how to attack him better in those minutes.
From Crosby’s perspective, while Bergeron played 57.3% of his 5-on-5 minutes against Sid, Crosby played four additional minutes at even, so only saw Patrice during 40% of his shifts, which is less than in either of the two games he’s played against Boston this year. That’s probably due to the fact that Bergeron only got five shifts in the third period as Julien rested his top forward unit while holding the lead.
There’s always lots of fun things to pull from matchup data. The takeaway is that Bergeron is being used much more defensively in the postseason, which is perhaps why Julien has stuck with Jaromir Jagr in place of Tyler Seguin on that top Bruins line despite Jagr registering just four assists so far in the post-season.