When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.
Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.
And it worked.
On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.
The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.
At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.
A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.
It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.
In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.
You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.
Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.
MORE CAPITALS STORIES:
This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.
It’s official. 19-year-old Juan Soto is a major leaguer. The Nationals have called him up from Class AA Harrisburg.— Jorge Castillo (@jorgecastillo) May 20, 2018
On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.
Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s.
This Juan Soto story is nuts.https://t.co/7bHEJK08fJ— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) May 20, 2018
He's the first MLB player to have been born after the following debuted in the Majors:
- The D-backs
- The (Devil) Rays
- Adrian Beltre
As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him.
This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.
He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future.
Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.
According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.
But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.
Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.
reading the juan soto news pic.twitter.com/xmsl50taLD— NBC Sports Nationals (@NBCSNationals) May 20, 2018
That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.
What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.
MORE NATS NEWS: