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.
Game 5: Blackhawks 5 Kings 4 (2OT)
1) +20.0, +12.6, +10.8
The Brandon Saad-Andrew Shaw-Patrick Kane line saw the majority of its action against the Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov pairingin Game 5, but when Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville employed Kane’s line against Greene and Martinez, the effect was similar. The trio delivered clean zone entries, attacked the neutral zone with speed, executed slick puck movement, and charged hard to the net. The Relative Fenwicks for Saad, Kane and Shaw at even strength were +20.0, +12.6, +10.8 respectively.
What was most noticeable was the retreating and backpedaling by both defensive pairs against the Kane line. Too much time and room against Kane is pleading for trouble, and the Johnny Oduya goal was a great example of the Kings’ defensemen sagging when Kane carried the puck in for the zone entry. (Unchallenged, No. 88 snuck a shot through and Oduya swooped in for the rebound.)
In the first four games, Kane had been confronted at the blue line to such an aggressive degree that it had hindered his zone entries. He was routinely chipping the puck in, and when Kane is punting on puck possession, the opponent is at a huge advantage. That was not the case in Game 5. A slip by Los Angeles at the point of attack cost the Kings the game.
In Game 5, Kane was electrifying, zipping and dipping, gliding passes through layers of defensive coverage, and using his abundance of stick skills to create space for himself. Understating the value of his craft would be unfair. He created where and when he wanted, without reproach.
Maybe it was a result of the exhaustion of the playoffs, but when Kane had the space to flaunt his puck-handling and weave in and out of traffic, he was not punished enough. As the Blackhawks’ best player last night, Kane personified the passing- shooting-skating clinic Chicago was allowed to perform.
On the Blackhawks’ one successful power play, Chicago whipped the puck around the offensive zone, while the pressure tactics the Kings had used to press Chicago the game before were sluggish. The Kings can match the Blackhawks in speed, and they are very good passers and shooters, but their inability to slow the rhythm of the Blackhawks’ offense was a major problem in last night’s contest.
The Kings’ Drew Doughty was out-of-control great last night, posting a +9.3 Relative Fenwick percentage at even strength. As is the case for an elite dual-threat passer in football, there is a predestined doom whenever Doughty possesses the puck. If he carries the puck, he will easily gain the zone on the entry; if he gets defensive attention, he will make a pass through a maze of players into a passing window that sometimes was not even open when he first released the puck.
His decision-making and calm when navigating the Kings’ defensive zone on the breakout arepeerless. His ability to manipulate the neutral zone when assessing the zone entry options is unmatched.
And once he gets in the offensive zone, what he does in a confined space is arguably more amazing. Doughty possesses a Crosby-like intelligence for how to disarm the forces that are blocking his way to the net. Whether he uses a give-and-go, a prolonged slap shot windup that leads to a coverage freeze — which opens up a teammate — or plain old attacking the net until he likes his shooting or passing option, Doughty has a brilliant understanding of how to buy an extra second with the puck. More importantly, he knows what that extra moment earns him. Doughty is so slippery that, even when he seems displaced and off-balance, he manages to find the seam or shooting lane anyway.
Doughty’s skill sometimes manifests itself in subtle ways. As a bouncing puck approached Doughty at the blue line on the Kings’ power play, Chicago’s Marian Hossa came charging out to challenge the defenseman. Settling the puck with his glove, Doughty spun and fired a backhand pass to Jeff Carter to keep the zone time alive and give the Kings a four-on-three down low. Carter ripped a shot from the left dot, and the time granted to him was a result of Doughty’s mastery of the details.
Not all the blame for his .889 save percentage should be placed on Quick. Los Angeles did not implement the austere coercion tactics that they had utilized in their three consecutive wins. Still, some of the rebounds Quick let up were unacceptable. Los Angeles’ units were not playing the same pugilistic style in the middle of the ice as in prior games, so the Blackhawks were able to move from non-scoring to scoring areas through dynamic skating and passing.
With the Kings’ five-men units not brandishing their A game, Quick needed to offset that. He usually does, but Oduya’s goal was off a big rebound, as was Brandon Saad’s and Ben Smith’s. If Quick had been sharper, he may have been able to fight off the Michal Handzus game-winner. (The Handzus goal was his second of the playoffs.)
The Kings will want to rediscover their physical game, but to ensure a Game 6 victory, they will need to do more than that. What the Kings do best is harness their heavy personnel offensively and defensively. In their own zone and the offensive zone, they use their puck skills and size to win the one-on-one battles. In the neutral zone and their own zone, they exploit their speed and size to eliminate the prime scoring areas and force teams to work off the perimeter. If the Kings do not usetheir strength on and off the puck, then it becomes a skating and skills game. The Kings can win that way, but they will be disregarding an important asset. And Chicago has won two Cups in the last four seasons playing the skating and skills game.
The Kings have not gone goalless on their power play since their only other loss, in Game 1. On L. A.’s first power play in Game 5, the Blackhawks blocked the shooting and passing lanes well, but at the same time, Doughty almost scored multiple times with the man advantage. On their second power play, the Kings moved the puck around, with the right people on the team receiving their chances. The Kings’ third power play was abbreviated, and while the puck movement was solid, Los Angeles was too passive and did not record a shot attempt.
In Game 3, the Kings had nearly double the Fenwick for that they had in Game 5, but even with some sloppiness and losses of draws in the offensive zone last night, the Kings had their opportunities. In Game 4, the Kings had less unblocked shot attempts, but that was a result of how efficient they were on the power play. Maybe it was the law of averages evening out that the Kings did not score when they had the man advantage last night.
Chicago’s inability to clear the puck has been a major problem on their penalty kill, and it was not significantly better in Game 5. The reality is that the Kings were white-hot on the power play, and that was unsustainable. The Blackhawks have been a very good penalty killing team, and they were bound to blank the Kings at some point when down a man.
In last night’s puck possession contest, the Fenwick percentage at five on five was 50-50, with 70.1 minutes as the sample size. When the Fenwick percentage settings are adjusted to even strength or five-on-five close, the Kings held the miniscule edge, but this highlights a bigger point: This game was dead even. The Blackhawks needed two overtimes, some crafty line-matching tactics, better results from their penalty kill, and Jonathan Quick to play his worst game of the series for them to to win their second game. In Los Angeles, the Kings will possess the opportunity for the last line change, and can deploy Doughty any way they want.
Still, the Blackhawks undeniably played with much more pace in their Game 5 victory. They had much more success on their zone exits and transition game. Their play even resulted in man-advantage opportunities; for example, the Jake Muzzin cross-checking penalty inflicted on Kane was a result of Chicago buzzing in the Kings’ offensive zone.
The inverse to the Blackhawks’ three-zone success was that the Kings were worse at removing the shooting and passing lanes. Because they struggled to connect on their outlet passes, they permitted Chicago more puck possession time in their own zone. When Chicago is slinging the puck around laterally and vertically, it is aesthetically pleasing, but it is also instructive of how another team being a half-step slow can change the dynamics of a game.
And the Kings were a step slower defensively the entire game. With two teams of such high caliber, the Blackhawks were able to gain inside position time and time again on the Kings, which translated into cleaner playmaking and more follow-up chances for Chicago.
Chicago did enough to win, and this was their best game in quite some time. Yet, there were still some egregious lapses. The defensive coverage around the net on the Jarret Stoll and Dustin Brown goals was ghastly. Overall, Chicago handled the puck responsibly, but their aggression resulted in some bad turnovers that the defensemen and Crawford helped alleviate.
For Game 6, the Kings will need a higher level from their bottom-six forwards. The Kopitar and Carter lines were both effective and finished on the plus-side of the spectrum in shots-for differential at even strength, but Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll’s lines are distinctly in the negative and had the ice slanted against them when they were playing. At even-strength, Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, and Mike Richards all saw two or more goals against.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.