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 4: Kings 1 Rangers 2
Burrowed deep in his net, Henrik Lundqvist was magnificent Wednesday night. The New York Rangers’ goaltender’s patient MO contrasts with Jonathan Quick’s ultra-aggressive challenge-the-shooter method, and except for Dustin Brown’s breakaway tally, nothing could completely sneak past Lundqvist in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
And Lundqvist faced a hailstorm of rubber, especially in the third period. The Los Angeles Kings were able to cleanly exit their zone and achieve the zone entry, and the Rangers’ best efforts were feckless in the final frame. The Kings improved as the game went along, and when the Rangers did build some speed off the rush, Los Angeles matched New York with a swift counterattack. New York struggled with outlet passes, and the Kings were able to generate some strong scoring chances off of turnovers.
The Rangers had moments in the first half of the game when they bent the defense with their speed, supported the puck well, and advanced the puck strategically. But these moments were few and far between once Brown’s goal narrowed the deficit to one, and Lundqvist showed outstanding athleticism and focus when New York began to be thoroughly drubbed.
The Kings’ dominance was particularly noteworthy since they lost, and has deservedly drawn attention to Lundqvist for stealing the game. The caliber of the Kings’ top-six forwards also has brought praise. But what should not be overlooked is Los Angeles’s defensive corps. Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin both played very well, and the Kings’ governing of the puck was partially a result of how ruthlessly their defensemen disrupted the Rangers’ offensive flow and advanced the puck to the Kings’ forwards on precise outlet passes.
The Kings procure multiple shot attempts through their ability to successfully gain the offensive zone — whether that be by rush or chip-and-chase – while repelling their opponents’ ability to forecheck or attack in transition. But the Rangers have done a good job in this series at diminishing Los Angeles’ efficacy in the neutral zone.
However, the Rangers did not do a good job at hindering the Kings in Game 4 — at all. New York’s 35.7 Fenwick percentage at five on five was dismal. The Kings coasted through the middle of the ice in numbers and shelled Lundqvist with shots. For the first time, the Kings dumped, rather than carried, the puck in because that presented a better opportunity for territorial advantage, not because they had no choice.
In the defensive zone, the Rangers survived. While Lundqvist was superb, other Rangers made their best effort to keep the Kings to the perimeter and eliminate the passing lanes (to varying success). As mentioned, there were some egregious turnovers, and the Rangers doubled the Kings in giveaways. Giveaways can be a misleading statistic because it can sometimes indicate that a team is controlling the puck more. But for New York to be dominated so thoroughly in the puck-possession battle, and still cough up the puck that much when they did possess it, reveals how fortunate New York was to survive this game.
The Kopitar and Carter lines led the Kings in possession stats, and both trios controlled the game and dictated the tempo in pronounced fashion. Unsurprisingly, both flourished in the faceoff circle, with Carter winning 11 of 15 draws. Kopitar had a stellar night in the faceoff circle as well, winning 13 of 22. In total, Los Angeles won 41 faceoffs versus 24 for New York.
When the Kings are winning faceoffs, it allows them to unleash shots with space. They have thrived all season on ingenuity, highly effective at either getting the puck to the forward they want to shoot, or passing the puck to one of their defensemen at the point for a well-placed shot.
Yet, the shot from the point is almost smoke-and-mirrors for the Kings, because it is a mechanism that allows them to pounce on a rebound as anarchy ensues around the paint. The Kings are strong as hell off the puck and possibly the best team in the NHL at winning one-on-ones; a faceoff win leverages that advantage for them by placing them in individual battles around the scoring area. (A good example is the Carter faceoff win with 5:49 left in the second period, which led to consecutive chances in the slot.)
One of the special elements of this Kings’ team is not just their versatility blended with their size, but also their skill for making plays when there is no space. The Kings’ forwards excel at making the correct pass or shot even when an opponent is draped over them.
With space, anyone can make a nice pass or shot. But doing so in heavy traffic is an unbelievable talent, and the Kings are chock full of players possessing that gift. A personal favorite in this game was the short pass Kopitar made to Brown as the latter cut to the net with 16:22 left in the third period. Kopitar was enveloped by three Rangers, but still threaded the pass to the Kings’ captain.
Tanner Pearson’s play was terrific, and he had a few signature moments in Game 4. He had 14 Shots for and 1 Shot against at even strength, and very nearly scored the game-tying goal off a gorgeous deflection from an Alec Martinez shot, beating Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal on one-on-one plays in space. Pearson was a tornado of offense. Yet the one Shot against highlights some very strong play in the Kings’ defensive zone as well.
Pearson made other plays that were very important, but may have been overlooked, though they were crucial for the Kings when implementing heavy pressure on Lundqvist. On his breakway, Jeff Carter ran a fly pattern, and his straight-line trajectory did not need to be altered because of the beautiful dish at center ice from Pearson. After Anton Stralman’s hack that stopped Carter’s breakaway, Pearson was relentless on the ensuing forecheck, and the follow-up chances were catalyzed by his effort.
The Kings have levels of puck support on their transition, and one of the reasons that Pearson is so successful is that he understands what is required of him to continue the progress of the puck as it moves into the offensive zone. Sometimes this means a pick on an opponent off the puck; at other times, it is a one-touch pass that will welcome a punishing hit from the opponent. In still other circumstances, Pearson will carry the puck to one side of the ice, so he attracts the defensive attention before he starts the movement of swinging the puck the other way, allowing the Kings to make their zone entry on the far side. The Kings are brilliant at identifying the entry points, and Pearson’s work in the defensive zone and neutral zone invigorate the team’s puck possession. The same can be said about young linemate and fellow winger Tyler Toffoli.
Ryan McDonagh’s ice time was the most it has been in a non-overtime game during these playoffs, and this was only the second time he has reached 28 minutes in a regulation-time game this postseason. (The first time was in the Rangers’ Game 4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.) And wow, McDonagh is incredible. How he manages to be the fulcrum of the offense from the back end, while simultaneously buoying the Rangers’ defense, is unfathomable. But he does it, consistently.
McDonagh managed to finish among the leaders in Fenwick percentage at even strength for New York, and incredibly also led them in Shots for at even strength. Although not fellow defenseman Dan Girardi’s fault, his stick’s breaking at an inopportune moment led to the Dustin Brown goal, and it was also bad luck that McDonagh was not on the ice with Girardi at that time, which may have prevented Brown from scoring. McDonagh has incredible recovery speed and strength off the puck, and it is very difficult to believe that Brown would have been able to score in the fashion he did – with approximately ten seconds worth of dekes – had No. 27 been on the ice.
One of the coolest things about watching McDonagh, and the Kings’ Drew Doughty, during these final stretches of games is observing how they try to execute with pinpoint efficiency when their gas tanks are past empty. Neither is as graceful when tired — Pearson eviscerating McDonagh in a footrace, as he did in Game 4, would never happen in the regular season when McDonagh was reasonably well rested. That Pearson play was a rare event; watching McDonagh gut it out has been awesome because he has still been great.
McDonagh and Doughty are the lodestars of their defensive groups on offense and defense; they lead their teams in breakouts, create from the point, and activate effectively enough to demand defensive attention. Defensively, both seal the gaps and step up and impede. Navigating the middle is nearly impossible against these two.
Bring on Game 5.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.