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 last two games in this series have been unbelievably exciting, and Game 6 may have been the best one yet. The Blackhawks converting on 16 percent of their shot attempts helped keep it compelling. Jonathan Quick made some big saves, but a few of the goals he allowed were soft. Quick is a butterfly goaltender, and since he is fast to play from his knees, a lot of players try to beat him by shooting at the upper half of the net. But on every goal the Blackhawks scored low. Even though the Blackhawks succeeded on four of their 25 shots on goal, one of the major reasons was the Kings’ defense allowed the Blackhawks to position themselves in scoring areas.
Overall, Chicago’s forwards were dynamic, and the Blackhawks looked better with their passing and quickness off the puck. They played with speed through the neutral zone, their breakouts were swift, and their puck support was impressive. In the offensive zone, they skated with less interference from the Kings. The Kings were physical in Game 6, but they struggled to maintain that asphyxiating defense that squelched the Blackhawks’ offense in Games 2-4.
On the game-tying goal by Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane was able to create uninhibited in the defensive zone, and then flicked a saucer pass to Keith. Keith cut right through the middle of the slot, and beat Jonathan Quick low. Keith shot from the low slot and had time and room to pick a corner. On Kane’s goal, he scored from the just inside the blue line and beat Jonathan Quick near post (although there was a Andrew Shaw screen). There is approximately a zero percent chance that would have happened in Game 4, where the Kings were suffocating Chicago every time the Blackhawks touched the puck.
When the Blackhawks are humming, it is because they ratchet up the aggression and their defensemen are consistently activating while the forwards continue playing beneath the circles. There were times when this assertiveness cost Chicago, like the Dwight King breakaway, but the recovery speed of their personnel generally allows them to do so without any tangible damage.
Patrick Kane had 15 shots for, leading the Chicago Blackhawks, and that is terrifying news for Los Angeles. On the game-winning goal by Kane, Willie Mitchell misfired on a pass through the neutral zone and Chicago quickly moved the puck over the blue line for the successful zone entry. Kane then tap-danced around Mitchell and Marian Gaborik – and he did so by reversing the flow of the play. In their first four games, the Kings did an excellent job stifling Kane’s zone entries and hovered over him even when he did not have the puck. That is not happening now, and Chicago is gleefully feeding it to Kane and letting Showtime do his thing. In Game 6, the Relative Fenwick leaders for Chicago were Brent Seabrook, Andrew Shaw, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Keith, Brandon Saad, and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks’ core is playing its best hockey – finally.
That is the Fenwick percentage for the Kings at even strength in Game 6. They did control the puck, and Drew Doughty was magnificent. The Kings have lost two straight, but what precipitated the defeats were unlikely events. The Kings very easily could have won Game 5 and Game 6. They rarely blow leads in the third period, and that just happened consecutively. Moreover, they had many chances to end the game in overtime and could not convert. The Kings could snag Game 7, but they will need to be a little sharper on their zone exits and transition game.
4) 1 for 2
Both teams converted on one of two power play opportunities, and in a series this close, how both clubs execute with the man advantage is vitally important. The Blackhawks had some nice puck movement, and the give-and-go between Kane and Toews was exactly what you would want to see from a team’s difference-makers. For the Kings, their power-play conversion similarly resulted from one of their best players. The puck was on Drew Doughty’s stick, and because he is so good and so dangerous, he drew the attention of not just Marian Hossa but Michal Handzus as well. With the two Blackhawks’ penalty-killers out of position, Doughty made a nifty backhand pass into the middle where defenseman Alec Martinez scored. Understandably, the best players should have the puck on their stick as much as possible during the power play, and both teams facilitated that well.
The Blackhawks won one more faceoff than the Kings, with Toews winning three consecutive draws in the defensive zone with two minutes and less remaining and Chicago protecting the lead. This helped Chicago squeak by with the victory, and it was the first time in the series that the Blackhawks won more faceoffs than the Kings.