As coach of the Washington Capitals, Bruce Cassidy is charged with finding the best matchups for his team's first-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he has a tough decision determining how to best use his superior checking line.
Cassidy often plays the line of Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier with the defensive pair of Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt to shut down an opponent's best line, but the Lightning has two lines worthy of his attention. Four Tampa Bay forwards, spread over two lines anchored by centers Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, reached the 70-point mark this season.
Halpern's line likely will take shifts against both lines, as this crucial strategy takes shape through the course of the series, but Cassidy wants to find a way to put them against whichever of Tampa Bay's lines is hottest at the moment. Meanwhile, Lightning Coach John Tortorella, also in his first postseason behind the bench, will try to get his checking line, led by center Tim Taylor, on the ice whenever Washington's top line of Jaromir Jagr, Kip Miller and Michael Nylander is on the ice.
The coach who maximizes his talent and works astutely to attain the most favorable matchups will likely prosper in this evenly balanced series.
"We have one checking line that is second to none, and we've tried to create a second one in one way to find the best matchups for us," Cassidy said. "But two scoring lines presents problems for every coach. Now, you need four quality defenders on the back end, and two lines that, away from the puck, are very responsible; so that presents problems. That probably explains Tampa's record scoring goals, and when you can balance it out like that it makes it tougher to defend."
The home team gets the last line change, making it increasingly difficult for the visiting coach to get the matchups he wants. To combat Tampa Bay's two-pronged attack -- and the fact the Lightning plays the first two games at home -- Cassidy plans to play five-man units of forwards and defensemen. Jagr's line will be paired with Gonchar and Ken Klee; Sergei Gonchar's formidable offensive skills help create quick transition plays that mesh with Jagr's world-class passing and finishing.
The other five-man unit -- Halpern's line along with Johansson and Witt -- is constructed solely with defense in mind and is comfortable playing against Lecavalier's line or Richards's line.
"Lecavalier and Richards are like 1 and 1A, and I don't really know how we're going to play against two balanced forward lines like that," Halpern said. "And I know they will probably try to get Taylor's line against Jags, which is fine. Jags does pretty well against those guys and we don't mind that matchup at all."
If Tortorella is committed to playing Taylor's line on Jagr's line, as expected, and the Halpern-based five-man unit plays against one of Tampa Bay's top two lines, that leaves the less experienced third defensive pair and fourth line to face one of the Lightning's top lines. Defensemen Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski never have played in the NHL playoffs before, while the newly constructed fourth line of Sergei Berezin, Brian Sutherby and Trent Whitfield has played only two games together.
"We like Gonch and Klee with Jagr, they're a good group of five," Cassidy said, "so if [the Lightning] put a checking line against them and we can't get away from it, then we have to look at Doig and Kiwi against one of their top lines, and I don't mind Doig against some of them on the right matchup.
"Maybe not against [Martin] St. Louis, because he's so quick, but a guy like [Fredrik] Modin, if he can get him in his tracks, or maybe even [Vaclav] Prospal, then it's okay as long as [Doig] can get that hit in early in the series and let them know he's out there. And Kiwi can skate with anybody, so I'm not too concerned with them in that regard, as long as they don't have to play 20 minutes against that [top] line. They're a good, solid 12- to 15-minute pair."
Managing that matchup, and monitoring the minutes of Doig and Kwiatkowski closely, could have a major impact on the outcome of the series. In time, Cassidy might have to alter his pairings and five-man units, but the tenacity of his checking line should be able to negate one of Tampa Bay's primary offensive forces, making the job easier for whoever picks up the slack.
"They definitely have two highly skilled lines," Grier said. "Vinny [Lecavalier] has had a lot of pressure on him down there, but this year he showed he's worth it, and Prospal had 20 goals -- that says a lot about him -- and St. Louis has been one of the best players in the league all year, so whoever we play against, it's a tough matchup. But hopefully we can neutralize them and play even with them throughout the series."
Cassidy said he will evaluate which of Tampa Bay's top two lines is playing best in each game, and assess which of those lines shows signs of being impatient with the puck or is disorganized defensively; Halpern's line often dominates puck possession and pens teams deep in their own zone, able to exploit those tendencies. No matter the approach, controlling two capable lines will not be easy.
"The coaching job, it's very important, especially in the playoffs," Jagr said. "You have to really pay attention and know what you want to do and how you want to match the lines and who you want to play against. It's tough for the coaches, you don't have much time to make a change on the bench for sure, and especially when you are the visiting team. It's tough. It's not a good job right now to be a coach. It's going to be tough."
Capitals Notes: Top defensive prospect Nolan Yonkman, who missed virtually the entire season because of injuries, is back from surgery on an orbital bone and played in the regular season finale for the Portland Pirates. Portland begins its best-of-three playoff series with Manitoba Thursday night. . . . All eight of Washington's owners, including Ted Leonsis, will travel to Tampa for the start of the series.