Burning Questions: Round 2 edition

– The Bruins led the Eastern Conference in Fenwick Close during the regular season and won the Presidents’ Trophy, whereas Montreal had a poor Fenwick Close and skated by on Carey Price’s goaltending and timely scoring. How is this series close?

The Bruins have won the Fenwick Close battle in all four games so far, but the series is 2-2 and Montreal had the opportunity to win each game. A big reason for that has been the play of Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price, who has outplayed Tuukka Rask. (Before last night’s 33-save shutout, Rask had allowed 76 of 86 shots in the first three games.)

Montreal has accomplished the same thing in this series against Boston that they accomplished during their four regular season match-ups: forcing turnovers, surviving the Bruins’ offensive onslaught with great goaltending and shot blocking, timely scoring and power-play effectiveness, and P.K. Subban’s best-player demonstration on the ice. But there are also some fascinating philosophical components that explain how this series has unfolded.

Both teams are playing strong two-way hockey, and the punch-counterpunch dynamic has been a theme all series long. Although Boston is bigger and Montreal is a little faster, what these two teams are trying to accomplish strategically is similar.

In the defensive zone, players on both sides must support the puck, expand and collapse as a unit, and eliminate the passing and shooting lanes.

Where they differ is that, while Montreal has a talent for damage control in their own zone, the Bruins have dramatically owned the territorial advantage. And given that Boston’s all-situations PDO in this series would have ranked them 28th in the league during the regular season, a correction would seem likely. Puck luck is a fickle animal, but some of the pucks that have caromed off the posts may go in during the next two to three games.

In the neutral zone, the Canadiens sit back and play a 1-2-2. They assail the Bruins in the hope that one of Boston’s players makes an errant pass — this while simultaneously trying to negate Boston’s speed if they navigate the middle zone successfully.

Boston approaches the space between the blue lines with layers — their forwards are conscientious at tracking, but if a Montreal forward reaches the opposite blue line, they have defensemen who can step up and impede. Montreal wants to overload the strong side and collectively exit the defensive zone, or attack the transition with speed; Boston relies on its ability to win one-on-one battles and their individual talents to pass and shoot their way into space.

In the offensive zone, there is some overlap. Both teams want to push back the defense on the net drive in order to open up a shot with room, or open up a seam that can produce a backside cut. Both teams also will attack with multiple players on one side of the ice, and allow the isolation for the trailer who comes in on the weak side and has room.

What a wacky series. It really is remarkable how the Canadiens can continually employ the rope-a-dope, bend-but-do-not-break defensive philosophy that sees Boston consistently manufacture odd-man rushes and opportunities off the cycle. Yet, the impeccable timing of Subban leaving the penalty box, or Dale Weise flying the zone in Game 3, or even Brian Gionta’s failed breakaway in Game 4 off of a David Krejci entry zone turnover, allows them to strike with premium scoring chances and potentially erase the Bruins’ efforts.

The Bruins have outshot the Canadiens 91-69 in close situations and 149-20 when adjusted to all situations. The Bruins have more talent and are the better team, but Montreal thrives in this match-up, and Subban’s plus-7.2 Relative Fenwick this playoff is illuminating of how dominant he has been. The second leg of the series should provide more compelling television.

– The Kings are up 2-1, but they have dominated this series and only dropped Game 3 because it is hard to sweep teams. The Kings have looked completely in control the whole time, right?

Not quite. Actually, this series has been much closer than a lot of people were anticipating.  To wit, the lords of Fenwick Close are actually losing the Fenwick Close battle this series.

When the Kings made history with their comeback from 3-0 down against the San Jose Sharks in the conference quarterfinals, their four consecutive wins displayed the dominance expected from a recent Cup winner. In that series, the Kings were dynamic on the rush and showed some major offensive prowess with their size, speed, and skill – at least they did after Game 3. But this match-up has been more of a slog, a lot of disjointedness in the neutral zone and offensive zone, with the Kings trying to establish themselves on the cycle.

It is nice that the Kings have the versatility to play both ways – on the rush and cycle — but in too much of the series so far, Anaheim has dictated the tempo. In Games 1 and 2, the Ducks really took it to them, winning the Fenwick Close battle comfortably. In Game 3, the Kings won the Fenwick Close contest, but the Ducks produced their first win. The upset in Fenwick Close provides a microcosm of some concerns that are evident for the Kings.

With Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr injured, the Kings are getting their defensive depth tested. Nevertheless, the heap of shots in the slots they are conceding is frightening because some of their top-four defensemen have been unsatisfactory. Slava Voynov has a minus-7.7 Relative Fenwick for the playoffs, and Jake Muzzin’s is minus-3.1, per ExtraSkater.com. Matt Greene leads the Kings in Relative Fenwick, but there have been several times where he has looked plodding and been caught flat-footed.

Too often, the Kings’ skaters are turning the puck over below the circles and before exiting the zone. The Ducks have experienced impressive success disrupting them on the forecheck, and too often Los Angeles relies on Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick to bail them out. Anaheim is also getting far too much time around the Kings net. The Ducks are getting prized chances in the middle of the ice, though they have failed to beat Quick when he goes into the butterfly and takes away the bottom of the net. Quick’s reflexes are sharp, and he is adept at fighting off shots when teams inevitably go up high, but the Kings’ flailing transition game points to a bigger problem.

The Kings simply do not look like the physical barbarians they were in 2012, and to an extent, 2013. Their lack of physicality has allowed the Ducks a lot of time to funnel pucks towards the net. The Ducks are beating Doughty to a pulp, and they look faster sometimes — dictating the tempo of game.

After Doughty, Alec Martinez probably has been the Kings’ second best defenseman. He is making a 200-foot impact, scoring and creating scoring chances, and he made that unbelievable shot block on Corey Perry in overtime of Game 1. Martinez has been a strong player in leading breakouts and driving play (his Relative Fenwick is plus-6.6).

L.A.’s Anze Kopitar has been lethal – he is leading the playoffs with 4.48 points per 60 minutes — and his line was been the catalyst of offense for the Kings at even strength. But aside from Kopitar and his linemates, Los Angeles is not getting much from their other forwards. After the regular season shortcomings of their supporting cast, and the lack of punch during the playoffs, it seems fair to wonder: Are the Kings top heavy? Some of the Kings’ noted key performers from 2012 and 2013 look ossified – Jarrett Stoll, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards. Fortunately, the Kopitar, Gaborik, and Doughty have been great.

Ultimately, the Ducks’ transition game was not good enough in Games 1 and 2 — they really miss Stephane Robidas. Their best players are a little slow to navigate the neutral zone against the Kings, and their lack of dynamism allows Los Angeles to dial down the pace. Additionally, the lack of a defenseman with a big shot from the blue line really hurts Anaheim. Fowler is really good, but his lack of a rocket shot makes him less formidable when the score is close.

– Is Minnesota overmatched from a talent standpoint, making Chicago destined for their second consecutive Western Conference finals?

Most likely. The Blackhawks are dominating the Fenwick Close battle against Minnesota, and it seems like Chicago’s best players are healthy and clicking. (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith are all positive Relative Fenwicks.) Furthermore, Bryan Bickell, who was a non-factor for most of the regular season, is leading the Blackhawks in points per 60 minutes, which is telling of their depth (although Kane was leading the team in GVT in Hockey Prospectus’s last player rankings). If Patrick Sharp gets hot – as is his wont — the Blackhawks could take advantage of Minnesota’s uncertain goaltending situation. Chicago will be fine offensively.

Defensively, the Blackhawks are the best defensive corps at pinching and gambling for an offensive opportunity, and then recovering and nullifying the play. Chicago is very good at disrupting offensive advances, and they always are trying to push the tempo – often by flying the zone – when the puck squirts loose.

Something to keep an eye out for is Keith’s fastball pass. Like a lot of defensemen, he puts his passes at different speeds, but when he sees something developing, he winds up for his fastball pass and tries to strike the pass as fast as possible to the cutting forward. Another fascinating Keith-ism is that, if he does not like the options when making his reads, or if Chicago’s fourth line is out, he will decide he is the best player on the ice and create. Good things almost always ensue.

There is a perception of Chicago that, if they play with enough speed and pace, that will put their best players in the neutral and offensive zones with room, and they are ace assassins when that happens. Minnesota is putting forth a strong effort, and to be fair, the Fenwick (when adjusted for all situations) is dead even for the two teams. But Chicago has an on-off switch, and Minnesota is not good enough to beat them when they are humming.

– Are the Rangers making the Penguins’ defense and goaltending look unbelievable, or is Pittsburgh doing a magnificent job putting the clamps on New York?

It appears to be a little bit of both. The Penguins are not the fastest team, but the injuries and fatigue of the Rangers have made Pittsburgh look speedier. At least this seems true since Game 1. The Penguins can deliberately move through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, and wait a second or two after crossing to hit the trailing man.

Ironically, speed is usually an advantage of the Rangers, but they looked enervated and too relaxed with and without the puck. The most notable example was when Sidney Crosby flew the zone for his first goal of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh has been able to force turnovers and beat the Rangers on their counterattack – from Game 2 on it seems like the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Chris Kunitz line has been slicing and weaving through the lax defensive coverage.

New York is not playing 200-feet right now – the most recent example being Martin St. Louis’s defensive error on Kunitz’s goal in Game 4. For the Penguins to win this series, they need their complementary players to stalemate the Rangers’ supporting cast, and for Pittsburgh’s best players to play hockey that not only dominates the advanced statistics but translates into real, tangible goals. That has happened. Crosby’s goal in Game 3 was the manifestation of their superstar, franchise player finally producing in a way that won his team the game in the literal sense.

Invectives have been hurled at the Rangers’ power play and core forwards, and that is a good place to start when assigning blame. Richards and Nash do not look like they have that dynamic jump with the puck that the other premier forwards on opposing teams do, and while Nash has an awesome Relative Fenwick, he has identical statistics to Anaheim Ducks’ defenseman Francois Beauchemin: zero goals and four assists. Versus Pittsburgh’s top-six forwards, the Rangers have not compared flatteringly.

The Penguins have been dominant on their zone entries on the power play, while the Rangers have struggled immensely. The discouraging thing is that, even when the Penguins do not cleanly gain the zone – whether that be a Malkin disruption on the carry in or a Kris Letang pass that missed its mark – they still manage to gain territorial advantage. At even strength, things have been ugly. Pittsburgh is outshooting the Rangers by a 91-72 margin, and has outscored them by three goals. The Penguins own the edge in the Fenwick Close battle as well.

New York’s best players are carrying the burden of injuries and some non-hockey related personal issues, but in just about every aspect, the last three games have been a disaster. The St. Louis-Brad Richards-Carl Hagelin line has been horrible defensively against Pittsburgh, and too often the defensive pair with them is left fending for themselves. Too many times, the Rangers’ skaters are losing the battles along the boards and in the middle of the ice, and this is allowing Pittsburgh to drive play to an extreme measure.

With New York down 3-1, a comeback seems unlikely, especially since Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma has shook up the lineup by slotting each line based on merit. The best players are playing with the best guys, and everyone for Pittsburgh looks to be playing reasonably well – giving the Penguins’ defense and goaltending a much needed confidence boost.

For New York, it has been an ugly series filled with turnovers, an inability to apply pressure in the offensive zone, and getting scorched by Crosby’s line. With New York’s difference-makers powerless, and a hopeless power play, it is no wonder the Penguins’ defense looks like stalwarts.

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