The Stanley Cup Final offers fascinating story lines and opportunities to analyze the teams and the NHL in 2014. With each game during the series, Hockey Prospectus will look at what the statistics say about the direction of the series, the league and who will raise the Cup.
Game 2: Los Angeles 5 New York 4
The Los Angeles Kings have dominated the third period during these playoffs (posting a +13 differential), and Game 2 was no exception. After two rudderless periods, the Kings started to have more success on their puck retrieval, and gained speed on their zone exits – at least until they tied the score.
When the Kings are at their most formidable, they rule the neutral zone, and in the third period and for spurts of overtime, they attacked in layers off the forecheck. Anze Kopitar’s toeing the blue line to keep the puck in, before the puck found Marian Gaborik’s stick is demonstrative of that.
This game was a series of punches and counterpunches, with each team asserting itself on the outside and inside part of the ice, and then conceding a bunch of scoring chances to the opponent. More than any in recent memory there is a danger in making too much of blanket statement about this game, because there was not a player for either team of whom one could assuredly state “He played great” or “He played badly.” This game was nearly five periods worth of gray area for both teams.
+16.4 and +14.1
These are the even-strength Relative Fenwick percentages of the New York Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, who were both at the center of the action in Game 2.
Zuccarello was almost unstoppable when he had the puck, with his balance and playmaking wreaking havoc on the Kings. On the Matt Greene blue line turnover, Zuccarello zig-zagged his way through the neutral zone, achieving the zone entry. Then with some good work on the cycle by the Zuccarello and his two linemates, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouilot, the Rangers buzzed around the offensive zone and kicked it out high to Ryan McDonagh, who blasted a slapshot toward the net. Zuccarello adeptly gained inside position on Kopitar on the far post, and tapped the puck in.
On the Brassard goal to give the Rangers a two-goal cushion again, Zuccarello raced in on the forecheck, took advantage of a miscommunication between Willie Mitchell and Jonathan Quick, and fed an open Brassard in front of the goal. The play was especially poignant because Zuccarello’s previous penalty for tripping had given the Kings the power play where Mitchell converted, narrowing the score to 3-2 Rangers.
Zuccarello very nearly had the game-winner in overtime, and once again, the small winger bounced off contact, stopped and started to shed defensive coverage, and found himself with space as well as Quick in the butterfly position. Zuccarello sailed the puck over the crossbar.
Kreider’s efficacy was different, and that is illustrative of the versatility of the Rangers. Zuccarello brought the finesse element; Kreider demonstrated the north-south power game.
Laying the hammer on the forecheck, Kreider punished the Kings’ defensemen, and used his speed to get into space. His breakaway opportunity, and his shot off the post from a Rick Nash pass – both in overtime — are examples of his explosiveness and stellar positioning.
The Kings struggled to account for Kreider’s strength along the boards in their own zone and in the offensive zone. On Martin St. Louis’s goal to give New York a 3-1 lead, Kreider provided a nifty play in the transition by moving the puck from his skate to his backhand before dishing it to Derek Stepan in stride.
Yet, like Zuccarello’s costly penalty, Kreider accidentally passed the puck back to Gaborik on the game-tying goal for the Kings. It was a mistake and a costly one, that helped the Kings even the game and force overtime.
The Kings were indiscriminate and prolific in their giveaways in Game 2, more than doubling the Rangers’ 15, per NHL.com. All three even-strength goals by the Rangers came on bad turnovers by Los Angeles.
While two of three Rangers goals were achieved from behind or at the Kings’ icing line, and the other goal was a gaffe at the Rangers’ blue line, the Kings did dole out their fair share of presents in the neutral zone. Passing is generally a strength for the Kings, and one of the reasons they had to pound away on the forecheck and chip-and-chase is that the puck-skills game was not working for them.
The Rangers deserve a lot of credit for meeting the Kings along the perimeter and challenging them. The half-wall and corners are a major plus for the Kings, but New York was their equal in Game 2.
New York was physical on their forecheck, and did a good job of interrupting the passing lanes in all three zones. Overall, Los Angeles struggled to make their tape-to-tape passes through the middle, and they were much more content to strategically dump the puck in than carry the puck in on the zone entry. The Kings have been assassins on the rush in the playoffs, but New York did a fantastic job at confronting them at the blue line and having back pressure from their forwards disrupt any speed Los Angeles generated.
The Kings have not held the lead once in this series. And to make things worse, the Rangers played better in Game 2 than in Game 1. They were faster to the puck for much of the second game.
The Rangers built speed through the neutral zone, were physical and organized on their forecheck, and had a lot of success hemming the Kings in their own zone and attacking off turnovers. In the faceoff circle, they were virtually the Kings’ equal, 56-54 Los Angeles, and once again had success anticipating the lost draw. The Chris Kreider breakaway in overtime was enabled by his closing in on Drew Doughty so fast that Kreider forced a turnover — the puck bounced to St. Louis’s stick, who offered up a pretty area pass. But although the Rangers had a two-goal lead twice, they still lost the game.
This is the Kings’ Fenwick percentage at five on five, which was over the span of 74 minutes and 40 seconds. The Kings were not effective in their transition game, but when they dug in offensively on the cycle, they were able to manufacture some shot attempts.
The Kings’ forecheck is meticulously designed to crash and direct the flow of the puck a certain way. The second and third forecheckers who are coming in a tick after the first forechecker are as an important as the man on the puck because they need to flood the area below the bottom of the circles like a wave. With the lack of success passing and shooting, the Kings were forced to grind and maintain the territorial edge, and did so well enough to win the game.
Yet, the Rangers countered the forecheck better in Game 2 than they did in Game 1. Marc Staal and Anton Stralman specifically were efficient at fetching the puck and finding the outlet. The Kings have had success all season and playoffs at achieving the zone entry and attaining one shot or more. The Rangers were able to stifle that very well, and the Kings’ defensemen had virtually no impact when they attacked.
In contrast, the Rangers were able to find more daylight, skating into space and finding shooting and passing lanes. When the neutral zone was clogged, all four New York lines were able to circumvent the Kings’ charges competently and channel the puck into the offensive zone.
One way the Rangers’ forwards did so was by positioning themselves around the center ice line to get their blade on the puck when it was fired up the ice for a quick one-touch before the puck zipped into the zone for the dump in. This is not a novel concept, but since the Kings are masters of the neutral zone, New York understands and executed the concept of not having to confront their opponent in the middle ice if they can avoid it.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.