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.
Los Angeles Kings 6 Chicago Blackhawks 2
This is the Kings’ Fenwick percentage at even strength in Wednesday night’s game.After two periods, the Blackhawks had a 2-1 lead and shots on goal were 19 apiece, but the Kings had a 32-17 faceoff advantage. Los Angeles would go on to score five goals in the third period, exiting their zone efficiently, converting on the man advantage, and exploiting Chicago’s mistakes.
The Mike Richards-Justin Williams-Dwight King line had fantastic Relative Fenwicks at five on five, the best of any Kings line. They produced scoring chances off faceoffs and moved the puck from non-scoring to scoring areas. Their success came off second chances and channeling the puck toward the net. On their goal at the end of the second period, the Kings foiled the Blackhawks after achieving a successful zone entry by overloading on the puck. Once they started the transition, they shuttled the puck to the cross-ice corner, which led to a fake-shot pass by Richards that got directed in off Justin Williams’ skate.
In the third period, the Kings did an excellent job of not allowing the Blackhawks to get separation, and of fronting them in the Kings’ defensive zone. Jeff Carter was able to carry the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone off of a blocked Patrick Kane shot. And a Tyler Toffoli goal would come off this sequence.
A reliance by Chicago on getting behind the Kings’ defense is dangerous. That is how the Blackhawks scored their two goals in Game 2, and it is how they procured the Kris Versteeg-Brent Seabrook two-on-one. But this is alarming because the Blackhawks do not want to be a team that can only score with quick strikes when the opposing forwards get caught deep; for success, it is incumbent to establish the zone entry and manufacture a shot or two.
The Kings are very disciplined, and their two-way play is phenomenal. So it is crucial for Chicago not only to move the puck into the offensive zone, but also to collect a shot attempt or two. The Kings have done a very good job thwarting the Blackhawks’ attempts to do this. In fact, over the last few seasons, the Kings have been tremendous at stymieing other teams’ offensive prospects when they achieve the zone entry — and this will be something to watch out for in Game 3.
Keep it simple, right? If a series is being analyzed “by the numbers,” a five-goal third period seems significant. Winning the one-on-one battles is an objective that is often linked to a team’s success on the forecheck in the offensive zone. If a player can stay strong on the puck, and help maintain his team’s territorial advantage, good things often happen. But the flip side of this equation is winning the one-on-one battles defensively, and that was particularly evident for the Kings in the third period of Game 2. In the previous two series, Chicago had skated by (sorry) on their abundant talent and goaltending, unable to play three periods of strong hockey.
In the offensive zone against most opponents, the Blackhawks utilize their puck skills and skating to create separation and maintain possession. But Los Angeles is not like most teams. Time after time in Game 2, the Blackhawks lost the individual match-ups when they entered the offensive zone, allowing the Kings to reclaim possession and move through the neutral zone with speed.
The Blackhawks are a very quick team, and they did make successful zone entries in the third period, but the Kings are superb at blocking avenues for the pass and shot. With little traction offensively, the Blackhawks fell behind and kept allowing more and more goals because of their increasingly aggressive strategy to reduce the deficit. They finished with an ugly 6-2 loss. It should also be mentioned that the best period of the game for the Kings’ Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, and Carter was the third.
The Kings were sharpshooters on Wednesday night, posting a robust 12.5 shooting percentage at even strength. They deserve a lot of credit for their zone exits, as well as their play in the neutral zone and defensive zone. They challenged, jabbed, and prodded Chicago – when the puck squirted loose, they were able to reset and engage in their defensive zone and then keep the puck moving north. The Kings drew penalties because they possessed the puck more and had strong support.
The big boys showed up on the power play – a 50-percent success rate with the man advantage is not too shabby. Doughty’s wrist shot found an opening which allowed Carter to deflect it past goalie Corey Crawford. This was followed by Jake Muzzin’s missile into the short-side top shelf, and within minutes a one-goal deficit turned into a one-goal lead for the Kings.
On Doughty’s goal, the Kings started the power play with an offensive zone faceoff, Kopitar won the draw, and 23 seconds later the puck was in the net. On Muzzin’s, the young defender had space and let it rip. Sometimes getting the puck on net is the best strategy, and Chicago tried to get a little too cute on their power plays. Passing up very good chances and looking for better ones is verboten against Los Angeles.
The Kings like to go four wide at their blue line on the penalty kill, and challenge Chicago on the zone entry. The Blackhawks struggled with this in Game 2, especially when a Kings player would come out and challenge the puck-carrier. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill alignment is closer to a 1-1-2, but the Kings have found the soft spots in that coverage when Los Angeles traverses the neutral zone.
That is the point total for Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp in this series thus far. There is a danger in oversimplifying things, judging players on results instead of the process – especially with a two-game sample size — but Kane and Sharp have not made the impact Chicago hopes for from their elite wingers.
Both players are possessing the puck, and have recorded four shots through two games, but as Eric Tulsky illustrated in his recent article on FiveThirtyEight, only Jonathan Toews consistently carried the puck into the zone on the entry.
Kane and Sharp are both dynamic offensive players, and any team they played on would want toput the puck on their sticks as much as possible. This resulted in their having a lot of touches on the power play; it was clear that their teammateswere trying to get them involved. Coach Joel Quenneville has tried to ignite both players with different linemates and opposition match-ups, but that will be more difficult with Los Angeles owning the last line change at home.
Still, it is hard to fault the Blackhawks’ strategy in this situation. Maybe they could let their offense develop more organically instead of forcing the puck to these two players. But few teams possess game-breaking forwards, and Kane and Sharp are more of a force when engaged than when playing off the puck.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.