Each week, Sam Hitchcock looks around the NHL. Follow him @intellighockey
The Detroit Chess Match
The Detroit Red Wings continue to win because there is an understanding throughout their lineup of what each teammate’s strengths are and what areas of the ice cater to each player’s talent. This Red Wings squad is built on speed, and all of the on-and-off-the-puck machinations that are run are designed to create and harness space.
If Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk has the puck, their linemates should find a soft spot around the slot, or a place in the neutral zone, so Zetterberg or Datsyuk can work a give-and-go to relieve some of the pressure. If Riley Sheahan has it, support him off the puck by running interference, or go to the net for a rebound chance.
A bad line change by an opponent is a quick stretch pass and sharp cut away from a breakaway for the Red Wings. A balky defensive group can be prodded and manipulated to Detroit’s liking by blitzing them off the edge so that the middle becomes a shooting gallery where the Red Wings can pick off passes or disrupt elongated possession sequences. Getting invasive off faceoffs and not allowing separation enables the Red Wings to dictate the outcome to their liking because their sticks and bodies are always within proximity to block a passing or shooting lane.
When Detroit possesses the puck, the Red Wings’ skaters always know what they are doing before they receive a pass. This is why there can be that chain-reaction effect where a few quick passes lead to an A-grade scoring chance. They also know what they will do after they seize possession back from their adversary.
The Ducks have used 13 different defensemen this season
If the season ended today, the Anaheim Ducks would win the Presidents’ Trophy. Generally, experiencing that much regular-season success means a team has been relatively injury free. (Boston was 21st in 2013-14 in man-games lost, and Chicago was 20th in 2012-13, although Vancouver finished 12th and 6th in 2011-12 and 2010-11.)
Yet, the Ducks have been badly afflicted this season by the injury bug, enough so that they have used 13(!!!!) defensemen. Francois Beauchemin and Ben Lovejoy, two rearguards used in top-four roles last season, have played a combined 30 games thus far in the 2014-15 campaign.
The Ducks’ ability to continue winning is a testament to their organization’s keen eye for drafting and development, as well as a style of play that allows them to plug any blueliner in there and have him be serviceable. Anaheim is unique because, while the young and talented Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Cam Fowler like to jump into the play and activate when they see open ice, the team does not require a defenseman to play extremely aggressively. Passing to the open forward to start the transition and keeping the puck away from the opposing goal are plusses, but the Ducks do not require direct passing when they leave the zone.
Anaheim’s forwards are extremely good at pressuring opponents and collecting the puck back, so even temporarily relinquishing possession by flipping the puck out of the zone is acceptable. The Ducks are also incredibly good at winning one-on-one battles for the puck or winning the race to an area pass, and they support extremely well, which allows green defensemen like Josh Manson to come in and find a comfort zone. The Ducks do like their defensemen to play physically, and their defensemen can be confident that, if they step up and drive an opposing skater into the boards in the neutral zone and the puck squirts past, two forwards will be there on the back check.
The Chicago Blackhawks are frequently extolled for their sublime skill on offense and defense, and goaltending is most often identified as their weakness to be exploited. But in 2014-15, that has not been the case. The Blackhawks are 2nd in the NHL in even-strength save percentage, and Eddie Olczyk said on the Blackhawks’ broadcast against Minnesota that he had vetted the Blackhawks’ goals from the entire season and only found three “soft goals.”
Corey Crawford has only accounted for 18 starts this season, so the Blackhawks’ top-notch goaltending has been achieved by three different goaltenders submitting a superb collective effort. But Crawford has a .929 save percentage, so he has been excellent in the action he has gotten. As the Kings continue to struggle in noteworthy possession metrics, the Blackhawks have remained an elite possession team. Los Angeles has been Chicago’s biggest challenger in terms of controlling play and vying for the Western Conference title, so if the Kings continue to languish, that greatly benefits Chicago. If Chicago can continue to dominate the puck and get first-rate goaltending, look out!
Jonas Brodin’s footwork is integral to his otherworldly possession stats.
The Minnesota Wild have become puck-possession juggernauts, and leading the charge is… Jones Brodin. While Brodin is not the name most people would be expecting to shepherd the Wild’s surge in possession metrics, the former tenth overall pick from 2011 has been phenomenal at driving play this season.
Brodin’s Corsi is among the top 20 in the NHL, and he has improved by an unfathomable 11.2 percent from last season. Minnesota has changed its style of play, and so has Brodin, but there are other, intrinsic reasons for Brodin’s advanced stats groundswell. And it is more than just a reluctance to fire the puck up the boards to no one in particular, like he would often do last season. One noteworthy aspect of his game is his footwork.
Brodin can move in lockstep with his opponents; he can challenge them right as they cross the blue line. Economic in his motion, he manages to keep a tight gap and, when the puck is in his area, he makes the right play to advance it out of the zone for Minnesota. Brodin also employs a very active stick, and while he mirrors opposing skaters’ movements, he is at the same time scrutinizing for the opportune moment to inject his stick into an enemy skater’s puck-handling radius and disrupt his possession.
With the puck, Brodin’s deft footwork allows him to open up a better passing and shooting angle when he is moving laterally. He is a good passer and shooter, and his poise when gliding across the ice while making his reads allows him to keep the Wild in possession because eventually he will choose the best option for Minnesota.
3-Goal Game Losses
Looking at the Stanley Cup winners over the last eight years, none of the teams that won the Cup finished in the top ten in 3-goal game losses. In fact, the team that wins the Cup rarely gets blown out, always finishing near the bottom of the NHL in this stat.
Los Angeles finished 29th in 3-goal game losses in 2013-14. In 2012-13, the Blackhawks finished 30th. In 2011-12, the Kings finished 29th in 3-goal game losses. In 2011, the Bruins finished tied for 29th and Vancouver, the Western Conference finalist, finished last. In 2009-10, the Blackhawks finished 30th. The Penguins finished 19th in 2009, and Detroit, the Western Conference finalist, 28th. Detroit finished 30th in 2007-08, and Anaheim finished 28th in 2006-07.
The 2005-06 season was memorably quirky, not only because the two teams who are going to net Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were in the Stanley Cup, but because Edmonton went on a surprise run as the No. 8 seed and Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe. Anyway, Carolina, the Stanley Cup winner, was 15th in the NHL in 3-goal game losses that season.
Overall, this is a pretty small sample size, but avoiding the top of the standings for amount of times beaten by three goals seems like a decent indicator of how well a team should fare in the playoffs.
So which are some of the marquee teams presently that have been beaten by three goals? The Kings are right behind Buffalo, Arizona, Edmonton, Montreal, and Columbus, in sixth place. Rob Vollman chronicled some of the team’s troubles in a recent article for ESPN Insider, and at the moment, Los Angeles looks very different than the powerhouse that dominated for the last few seasons. The Kings have an incredibly intelligent front office, and their players are resilient beyond belief, so it would be insane to count them out, but signs of trouble are visible.
The Rangers, the Eastern Conference Cup representative from last season, are another noticeable name at the top of the standings. Ryan Wagman wrote a strong in-depth article for ESPN Insider detailing some of New York’s problems this week. Their five 3-goal game losses are not great, but should improve with Lundqvist’s mid-season refinement and the team at full health.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Blackhawks have two, which puts them in a tie for 28th. And Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay have three, so they are near the bottom of the standings in this statistic as well.