Commentary

The best at containing Alex Ovechkin

While Rangers aren't slowing Caps' captain, data show trouble could loom in Rd. 2

Updated: April 22, 2011, 3:38 PM ET
By Neil Greenberg | Special to ESPN Insider
Alex OvechkinJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Alex Ovechkin always draws opponents' top D pairing. Some are more successful than others.

You can draw up any game plan you want, but when you face the Washington Capitals in a seven-game playoff series, your No. 1 priority must be to shut down Alex Ovechkin.

For the New York Rangers, this means the defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal needs to be the difference between heading to the next round and scheduling an earlier-than-expected tee time. That fact will be particularly true on Saturday, when the Caps try to close out a series they lead 3-1.

On the surface, the regular-season success of Girardi and Staal against Ovechkin looks stellar: no even-strength goals allowed when the superstar winger was on the ice. Looking a bit deeper shows that the duo might have gotten lucky. Specifically, they don't do enough to limit the scoring chances by Ovechkin and his linemates.

When Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was asked whether he was concerned about the lack of shots in the Rangers' zone after the loss in Game 3, he explained, "Shots aren't important. Scoring chances are way more important than shots."

A scoring chance is defined as a clear play directed toward the opposing net from a dangerous scoring area -- loosely defined as the top of the circle in and inside the faceoff dots. A player is awarded a "chance for" if he is on the ice when someone on his team generates a chance to score and a "chance against" if the opposing team does.

Girardi and Staal lost the scoring=chance battle against Ovechkin and his linemates during the regular season, with the Rangers seeing only 38.5 percent of the even-strength scoring chances go in their favor. For comparison, Washington's young shutdown pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner saw more than 51 percent go in their favor skating against the opposition's toughest competition.

Leaguewide, teams convert somewhere between 14 and 20 percent of their scoring chances, so you can see why the Ovechkin line is overdue against Girardi and Staal given the number of high-quality opportunities. During the playoffs, Girardi and Staal have surrendered nearly two-thirds of the even-strength scoring chances to Ovechkin when they are on the ice together, giving up two goals and four points to the Caps' top line in the series.

If Girardi and Staal can't get the job done, who can? Here's how the top shutdown defensive pairings in the East stack up against the Capitals' captain's line based on scoring-chance data.


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Neil Greenberg is ESPN Insider's NHL analytics expert. His columns have appeared on the Washington Post website, and he is a regular guest on Sirius XM NHL Radio.