Get ready to match the stars
Hunter, Julien could be busy with changes
WILMINGTON - Think of the Jamaicaway, Memorial Drive, and Route 3 South during rush hour. That’s how bad the traffic will be in front of both benches when the Bruins start their Stanley Cup defense at TD Garden Thursday night.
The game within the games will be how Bruins coach Claude Julien and Capitals counterpart Dale Hunter manage their matchups. The primary showdown will be between Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara and Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin. When Ovechkin hits the ice, Chara will be in his face.
That won’t be the only one.
Hunter has been an NHL coach only since Nov. 28, 2011, when he replaced Bruce Boudreau. But in less than five months, Hunter has gained a reputation for being one of the league’s strictest matchers.
His insistence on hard matching will lead to a flurry of midstream changes that will wear out the ice in front of his bench.
“That’s a big distinction between Bruce Boudreau and Dale,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “He’s a real hard matcher.
“A few times, I’ve spoken to Claude after we played Washington and before in preparation. We talk about the matching. I think that plays to Claude’s strength. He can respond and mix the lines a little bit.
“I think our depth through the forward position allows us to mix the lines and throw a hard matcher off. So I think you’ll see some of those games within the game.’’
As the home coach, Julien will have the advantage in Games 1 and 2 of the last change before faceoffs. If Hunter rolls out top-liners Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer along with No. 1 defensive pairing Karl Alzner and John Carlson, Julien will counter with Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, his ace shutdown pair. Julien could also deploy Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Tyler Seguin, his preferred matchup line.
It’s after the puck drops when mayhem could break out. If the Capitals win the draw and gain puck possession, they could change personnel on the fly.
Ideally, Hunter wants to change regularly enough that Ovechkin somehow hits the ice immediately after a Chara shift. Because of Chara’s size, reach, and positioning, the Boston captain is effective at neutralizing one of Ovechkin’s favorite maneuvers - lurking behind the defense, blowing the zone, and pulling in a stretch pass.
Against smaller and less mobile defensemen, Ovechkin is especially dangerous off the rush because of his size, speed, and shot.
“Guys who play against him probably want to keep a tighter gap,’’ said Joe Corvo, who played with Ovechkin last year. “He’s the only one you really want to keep a gap with.
“If he’s stretching out the neutral zone, then you’ve got to put a guy on him. Other than that, it’s the same as it’s been all year long. You’ve just to keep good gaps. They’ve got some fast guys, and giving them more room is not the answer.’’
The Bruins will have to be ready to change on the fly, too.
“That’s part of the playoffs, that line matching,’’ said Bruins center Chris Kelly. “That’s nothing new. We’ve dealt with that in the past. A coach is going to do what he thinks is best to help his team win.
“Line matching is important. But by no means is it going to affect the game or the outcome too dramatically.’’
Julien likes certain matchups. He will deploy Chara and Seidenberg, along with the Bergeron line, against Ovechkin’s unit. He will most likely roll out Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk, his second defensive pairing, against Washington’s No. 2 line of Jason Chimera, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin.
In turn, Julien will do his best to avoid certain scenarios. If Hunter manages to slip Ovechkin’s line out against Greg Zanon and Corvo, Julien will scramble to send Chara and Seidenberg over the boards.
But Julien doesn’t sound as if he’ll get sucked into shadowing Hunter’s every move. The Bruins thrive when they’re rolling four lines, wearing opponents down, and creating momentum on the forecheck.
If the Bruins become too concerned with matchups, they might not have the rhythm to create.
“If he wants to hard match and we want to hard match, are we taking away part of our game? That’s the thing we’ll have to decide as we go along here,’’ Julien said.
“At least with home-ice advantage, on faceoffs, you get to pick and choose. But if he wants to change on the fly and we continue trying to do that, then I think a lot of it will be playing into their strengths versus ours.’’