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 Kings are the best in the NHL at putting the puck in places where only they can control it, and in Game 3 they controlled it slightly more, winning the Fenwick percentage battle in all situations.
How the Kings pass and control the puck is the underpinning for what made them the best team in the league in Fenwick Close in back-to-back seasons. When the Kings are in command of the puck, their players position themselves strategically, guarding against an obstructing stick while surveying their options. It requires a combination of patience and confidence in one’s teammates to understand the accountability component, and coach Darryl Sutter is deserving of praise.
The Kings demonstrate this careful decision-making when advancing the puck. Whether it is by offering a precisely placed area pass, or by passing the puck to a side of the ice where their man is closer, the Kings are proficient at giving themselves the opportunity to succeed. If the Kings try to thread a pass through coverage, they have skaters in position to oppose the counterattack.
The Kings’ calculated progression of the puck is crucial to their success in the puck possession numbers. Anze Kopitar’s line had a very good Relative Fenwick in Game 3, as did Jeff Carter’s – both trios are adept at fitting the puck into spots where the opposition is not, giving their skilled players the chance to collectively weave through the coverage. Since the Kopitar and Carter lines are the Kings’ top two forward groups, their success at tilting the ice is crucial.
On Chicago’s shorthanded goal by Jonathan Toews, the Kings’ Justin Williams was trying to pivot and swing the puck to the opposite side for the zone entry and change the flow of the attack. But Toews was able to exploit the methodical decision-making that left Williams vulnerable, and score a goal off the turnover. That does not happen often, however.
The Kings consistently place the puck in their teammates’ receiving radius, allowing them to cleanly exit the zone on their breakout and entrench themselves offensively when they make their zone entry.
Of the many distressing aspects of Game 3 for Chicago, the lack of traction the Blackhawks were able to generate on five on five has to be at the top. The Toews-Hossa-Bickell group was the best triumvirate for Chicago, posting the best Relative Fenwick of any Chicago line and registering the single Blackhawks goal when the teams were five on five.
That goal came off tenacious play by Toews and Hossa below the circles, but the scoring chance they procured was a rare lapse in a very strong defensive game for Los Angeles. The fact that stay-at-home defenseman Michal Rozsival was the catalyst for the Blackhawks’ penetration through the middle is revealing.
Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp continue to be neutralized, and when matched against Carter’s line in Game 3, they got scorched. The Kings’ skaters are pressing Kane and Sharp on and off the puck, and the shooting and passing lanes have been rarely available. Additionally, the Kings’ collective defense at even strength looks ferocious, and they hindered the Blackhawks on the penalty kill as well.
Maybe more than in any game this postseason, Los Angeles in Game 3 was able to channel the stylistic elements that led them to the Cup in 2012. They enforced a dominating physical presence when opposing skaters carried the puck, and impeded the Blackhawks’ players’ sticks. In a series where the Blackhawks have seen little space to maneuver offensively, Game 3 represented the contest where the least amount of breathing room was afforded. Chicago struggled on their outlet passes and with play in the neutral zone, and their zone entries often resulted in a swift exit by Los Angeles.
For too much of this series, Chicago has been chasing the puck, resetting after getting denied when they try to build speed through the neutral zone, and making the extra pass when they should shoot in a scoring area. When the Blackhawks are in the offensive zone, they need to direct the puck toward Quick, because every extra half-second allows the Kings to realign themselves — and that window of opportunity passes quickly.
Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov had their best performances in the 4-3 Kings victory, combining for eight shots.Chicago struggled to diminish the Kings’ pressure below the circles when facing the Kings’ most offensively gifted defensemen at the blue line or lower.
Chicago struggled in their one-on-one battles in their own zone, and Doughty and Voynov both scored when positioned up high. Voynov’s tally came off the power play, when Chicago was scrambling and attempting to alleviate the strength of the Kings’ forwards and movement of the puck around the net. After Carter kicked it out to him, Voynov was able to pause, outwait the Blackhawks’ defensemen and goaltender Corey Crawford, then blast a slap shot into the shooting lane.
The Doughty goal came just as Los Angeles’ power play expired. The Kings won the faceoff, and got some strong side help from Justin Williams pushing the puck up high. A defenseman-to-defenseman pass followed, giving Doughty time and space in a prime area of the ice to let it rip. The Kings’ passing, speed, shooting, and ability to bully a non-physical Chicago team in the offensive zone enable them to stretch the Blackhawks defense in compromising ways.
The Doughty goal was also emblematic of one of the other core problems of the series for Chicago. Los Angeles is dominating in the faceoff circle, with Jarrett Stoll and Anze Kopitar supplying immediate puck possession in the offensive and defensive zones. They were 26-19 combined on faceoffs in Game 3. When the Kings need a defensive zone faceoff, Stoll or Kopitar are able to relieve the pressure in their own zone by gaining puck possession off the draw. Losing faceoffs is one of the primary reasons why Chicago has struggled to manufacture consistent scoring chances. After winning 11 of 18 faceoffs in Game 1, Toews has posted consecutive games of under 50 percent in the faceoff circle.
21:16, 21:28, 20:36
Toews, Kane, and Marian Hossa all played over 20 minutes in Game 3, while there was not one forward on the Kings who played 19 or more minutes. Defenseman Doughty continues to play nearly half the game for Los Angeles because he is a different species.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is leaning more on his best players, and Chicago is still losing. Winger Brandon Saad received a few seconds over 16 minutes in Game 3, andhas played very well in back-to-back games, making some dynamic plays with the puck. Quenneville may want to increase his ice time in Game 4 as well.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.