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 4: Kings 4 Blackhawks 2
The merit of shot-blocks is a hotly debated topic in the hockey community. The prevailing argument is that a team that blocks shots more, possesses the puck less — and possessing the puck more has a very strong correlation to winning. Ipso facto, blocking shots are bad. But like most things in hockey, there are shades of gray. For Los Angeles last night, blocking shots was a very good thing. The Kings had 23 shot-blocks versus the Blackhawks’ 12.
In Game 4, blockading the shooting lane allowed the Kings to front the Blackhawks’ defensemen on the penalty kill and choke any progress the Blackhawks made when penetrating the middle. Los Angeles halted the Blackhawks on the odd-man rush (Alec Martinez’s shot-block on Patrick Kane at the start of the second period); staved off any legitimate pushback until far too late (Jarrett Stoll’s block on the Duncan Keith one-timer during the Blackhawks’ final power play opportunity); and sprung a rush opportunity of their own (Jake Muzzin’s shot-block allowed the puck to be fed to Gaborik for the attack on the transition in the first period). The Kings wielded their shot-blocking prowess in beneficial sequences.
The Kings are so intuitive without the puck in their defensive coverage that they have the luxury of plopping five men at the top of the circles or below. They will overload the strong side, then utilize their speedy personnel to seal off the shooting lanes and passing lanes when the puck gets swung to the weak side or blue line. Oftentimes, players are labeled as explosive in their pursuit of the puck or when puck-handling — the Kings are replete with players who are explosive in their ability to defend.
The strong-arm defensive coverage below the circles and clogging of any space around the puck enable a swarm of Kings to break out as a unit, often with support behind the puck-carrier.
Chicago was in a lose/lose scenario when the Kings were humming. If they were outnumbered on the forecheck, the Kings would easily exit the zone. If Chicago tried to match the Kings in bodies when they flooded the strong side, the Kings found the outlet lanes and exploited the open space from the increased number of Blackhawks’ skaters below the circles. This enabled the Kings to generate an odd-man rush.
This two-for-two could stand for the 100 percent conversion rate on the Kings’ two chances with the man advantage in the first period. It also could stand for the fact that the Kings only needed one shot on goal to score on each power play. Two power play opportunities and two goals; two shots on net and two goals. The Kings were ruthlessly efficient, employing precise passing and a proficiency for exacting their will on Chicago’s mistakes.
On the first power play goal, Jonathan Toews had a chance to clear the zone when he intercepted a pass from Jeff Carter. The pass was directed toward the point, and when the Blackhawks’ captain tried to transfer the puck from his forehand to backhand, he fumbled it and Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin – the eventual goal scorer – swooped in and grabbed possession.
Simultaneously, Patrick Sharp flew the zone expecting Toews to pass it to him for a possible rush opportunity, but when Muzzin gained possession of the puck, Sharp came crashing back into the zone, and fell when jostling with Drew Doughty, leaving both Chicago forwards on the strong side. When Doughty recognized the chaotic defensive coverage, he fed Muzzin, and the skilled defenseman waltzed through the middle of the slot and picked a corner. Goaltender Corey Crawford had no chance because his vision was obstructed by a Carter eclipse. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith had failed to remove the net front presence, and a confluence of errors killed Chicago on their first penalty kill.
The second power play goal was so perfectly executed it is hard to imagine employing a scheme to defend it. The Kings were able to gain possession off the dump-in along the half-wall. From there, Justin Williams fed Mike Richards, who split two defenders (Oduya and Seabrook), button-hooked, and threaded the pass through Marian Hossa’s legs to the weak-side point where Muzzin was stationed. Muzzin shot-passed the puck to Williams, who had slipped off the half-wall after the pass to Richards toward the front of the net. Williams directed the puck across the crease onto Dustin Brown’s stick, and Brown, positioned along the far post, tapped the puck into the yawning net.
Such a string of events cannot be called textbook because it is so inconceivably difficult to perform in practice that a coach would not dare scribble that exact formulation. That the Kings inflicted that sequence against the reigning Stanley Cup champions made it even more jaw-dropping.
The Blackhawks lost the game in the first period, but the disparity in the two goals for the Kings on the power play and zero goals for the Blackhawks on the power play is especially significant because each team only earned one more chance with the man advantage over the next two periods.
How the Kings defended the penalty kill is of particular interest, because a team as skilled as Chicago is not easy to quell. The Blackhawks struggled with the Kings’ size and speed. This was evident in the faceoff circle and along the boards on the Blackhawks’ power play; if the Kings did not initially have possession, they would overpower or outskate Chicago to win the puck.
The Kings’ ability to confine Chicago and close out when the Blackhawks were able to pass the puck to a player with time was stunning. In the one-on-one battles in the Kings’ own zone, Los Angeles was the constant victor, which helped kill off the man advantage. There was also too much puck watching by Chicago, and not enough strong side to weak side. The Blackhawks were a step slow, which they cannot afford against the Kings.
Still, the Kings’ jack-in-the-box leap-out ability cannot be overstated. Few teams possess the speed and length to recede en masse in the defensive zone, and not concede anything up high. In Game 4, the Kings’ bodies and sticks were always obstructing any path toward the net.
The Kings only outshot the Blackhawks by one in the first period. In the game, Chicago won the Fenwick percentage contest at even strength by a significant margin, but that was a result of score effects. Once the Kings had a 3-0 lead, they felt confident playing a more conservative style to protect their lead. This was even more true once the score became 4-0.
The Kings’ sole even-strength goal in the first period was the result of consecutive turnovers in the neutral zone by Chicago. The Kopitar line applied top pressure on the Keith-Seabrook pair, Keith turned the puck over below the circles, and Gaborik beat Seabrook to the net. Kopitar has been shedding defenders and knifing through the first and second line of defensive coverage all postseason, but his boxcar stats, along with those of his linemates, had been paltry in the series leading into Game 4. That changed, and Chicago had no answer.
From center ice circle and below, the Blackhawks struggled to connect on passes and create any tempo exiting the zone. The Blackhawks were able to manufacture some shots, but the Kings were stingy with the puck in the slot and around the net.
5) 52.2, 47.8, 43.5
Those are the Fenwick percentages for Chicago’s Kane, Bryan Bickell, and Toews at even strength. Other than Brandon Saad, those three were leaned on the most in ice time and they posted substandard results. That line started the game, which was symbolic since they have been the most steady playoff performers for the Blackhawks over these past two postseason runs. The triad combined for Bickell’s goal, which narrowed the margin to 4-2, but ultimately the Kings asserted their will against all of Chicago’s prime-time performers.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.