The Conference Finals in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference offer a group of fascinating story lines and opportunities to analyze the teams and the NHL in 2014. With each game during both Conference Finals, Hockey Prospectus will look at what the statistics say about the direction of the series, the league and who will raise Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Western Conference finals started Sunday afternoon and, as expected, there was not a lot of space for players possessing the puck. When they had the puck, the difference-makers were enclosed by multiple defenders, and both teams were relentless in their two-way effort (aside from Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp’s ill-timed line change). Understandably, players had trouble slipping the puck from the perimeter into the middle against the active sticks of both teams’ defensemen.
The strength of both teams defensively in five-on-five play will place a bigger emphasis on special teams, as when the Blackhawks received a power play opportunity on Alec Martinez’s roughing penalty on a Brandon Bollig dive. The Blackhawks were able to exploit the man advantage and notch the opening tally. There were only four penalties called in the game, and Chicago scored on one of their two opportunities to gain the early lead.
One hundred PDO represents the expected puck luck for an average team, so the Kings’ 88.8 PDO demonstrates that they were brutally unlucky. When combing through the statistics, indicators show this game could have certainly gone to Los Angeles. The Kings won the puck possession game handily — Fenwick Close, Fenwick percentage at even strength, Fenwick all situations were heavily in the Kings’ favor — but it was evident early on that each team is very skilled at exiting the zone and supporting the puck. Put more simply, converting on scoring chances will matter, because shots in prime areas will be hard to come by.
When L. A.’s Mike Richards looked off Nick Leddy and threaded a pass to Tyler Toffoli for a breakaway, Toffoli beat goaltender Corey Crawford, but hit the post. It is a positive that the Kings controlled the territorial game, but they cannot fall behind to the Blackhawks and come back like they did against San Jose and Anaheim. If there was one play that epitomized how Chicago is a different beast than the Kings’ prior opponents, it was the Kings’ Jake Muzzin’s failed pinch. Bryan Bickell took the hit to galvanize an odd-man rush, which the Blackhawks easily converted on the scoring chance. That goal clinched the game and the Kings are again trailing in a series.
Kings’ center Anze Kopitar posted a goose egg for shots on goal, and it became very clear, very quickly, that both teams will be obsessive about not allowing the dominant puck-handlers to beat them. Kopitar was smothered every time he possessed the puck, and was closely monitored without the puck. Likewise for Patrick Kane. Kopitar leads the NHL playoffs with 19 points, but he will be pitted against the Blackhawks’ shutdown defensemen, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, when Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has the last line change. The Kings will need a big effort from their complementary forwards in this series, along with some offense from their defensemen — like Duncan Keith provided for Chicago in Game 1 – because too much of a scoring burden on Kopitar’s line could stretch the Kings’ key forwards.
In the updated Hockey Prospectus playoff player rankings, Corey Crawford was just ranked in the number one spot, highlighting his Conn Smythe legitimacy. Crawford owns the best save percentage of any goaltender in the playoffs, and in yesterday’s game, he stopped 25 of 26 shots while his counterpart, Jonathan Quick, saved 17 of 20 shots. When narrowing the shots attempted to even-strength situations, only Henrik Lundqvist has a better save percentage of the goaltenders remaining. Chicago is a very assertive team that wants to break out of their zone quickly and utilize layers when they attack, with three or four skaters on the zone entry or in the neutral zone. The Blackhawks attempt risky passes and gamble for takeaways, and can afford to do so because, as Kings coach Darryl Sutter put it, they have “four No. 1 defensemen,” but also because they have a goaltender who is keeping them in the games. If Crawford continues to outplay Quick, this series could finish quicker than people anticipate.
In Game 1, the Kings’ defensive anchor, Drew Doughty, played 2:47 seconds more than the player with the second-highest time. Through 15 games, Doughty has averaged 27:20 time on ice. Doughty is one of the best players in the NHL, and the nucleus of the Kings’ defense, but he was on the receiving end of a lot of physical punishment in the first two rounds.
In Game 1, he was less active in catalyzing and jumping into the rush. Whether that was because he was cautious of the explosive Chicago forwards regularly deployed against him, or was trying to conserve energy because he was playing nearly half of the game, is a fascinating subplot to follow as the series unfolds. The Kings are finally facing their near-equal in puck possession, but if their goaltending is not comparable, and their best players are forced to dominant or else, then Chicago’s chances are very good.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.