June 18 2012 07:17AM
Photo by Bachrach44, via Wikimedia Commons
After defeating the New Jersey Devils in six games in this year's Stanley Cup Final, the Los Angeles Kings became the first eight-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup since the new playoff format was introduced in 1994. At first glance, this sounds like a huge upset but it really isn't if you have been paying attention to the playoffs and the run the Kings have been on. They got through the first three rounds in only 14 games and steamrolled over the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference Finals.
Past history has shown that teams built on a strong puck possession game at even strength have a better chance at going further into the playoffs. The recent Stanley Cup victories from teams like Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh are evidence of this and the Kings were the fourth highest ranked team in Fenwick Close this season. This means that they were consistently outshooting their opponents in close games and were one of the better teams in the NHL this season. One of the reasons why they ended up as an 8 seed is because they had some very poor shooting luck and had numerous stretches throughout the year where they couldn't score.
When a team plays that well at even strength, it usually doesn't go unrewarded, so those who followed these numbers saw the Kings luck turning around eventually and it did in a big way. Los Angeles' shooting luck improved this post-season and when you combine that with their ability to dominate the pace of play at even strength and the superb goaltending of Jonathan Quick, it makes for a very dangeorus team and a cup favorite. The Canucks, Blues and Coyotes all found out the hard way and the Devils followed suit in the Stanley Cup Finals.
New Jersey did what they could to push this series to six games but the Kings proved to be too much for them and just about every underlying stat from this series proves that point. We will take a look at said underlying numbers after the jump and point out a few areas where the Kings excelled, the key one being scoring chances.
Stanley Cup Final Scoring Chances
Los Angeles' chances are in grey, New Jersey's are in red. This chart is from LA's perspective.
The Kings did to the Devils what they did to most of their other opponents this post-season. They outchanced the New Jersey by 16 at even strength, which is a little surprising because there were a couple of games where I thought the Kings looked a bit off. It appears that didn't matter as much since they were still able to outchance the Devils by a wide margin both overall and at even strength. This isn't terribly surprising because the Devils (nor many other teams in the league) don't match up well with the Kings at even strength, so the best they could do was try to contain LA as much as possible.
That is what New Jersey did for most of this series and they did a decent job when playing at even strength, but they still were not producing much offense. It's very hard to win like by merely suppressing the oppsotion's offense you are playing against a goalie like Jonathan Quick.
It didn't help that the Kings also shut them down on the powerplay, allowing only 12 scoring chances when playing 4-on-5. Taking advantage of powerplays is a way to level the playing field against a tough team but the KIngs wouldn't let that happen.
Los Angeles Kings Scoring Chances by Player
Drew Doughty played some of the best hockey of his young career this series. He was the Kings' most active player offensively and he did a remarkable job at preventing chances at the other end, too. All series long I thought the Devils top line looked very ineffective and the play of Doughty was a huge reason for that. Rob Scuderi also palyed very well along side of him as the two make a very effective duo. Doughty was clearly the one who was making things work, though. He was fantastic in all three areas of the game.
The Kings' top-six also came to play as the Kopitar line continued to plow over their opposition and the Richards line also performed very well. That line was actually a concern coming into this series because despite Richards, Carter & Penner putting up points, they were very poor defensively through a majority of the post-season. They managed to right the ship in this series, though, as all three were much better at preventing chances than they were previously.
All but two players in the Kings forward corps had a positive scoring chance differential at even strength. Those two players were Trevor Lewis and Brad Richardson. Lewis and the rest of the third line were probably the Kings' weakest unit this series but they did not play poorly overall. Richardson was scratched in Game 2 in favor of the returning Simon Gagne and I don't even need to tell you how big of an upgrade that was.
The vulnerable spot for the Kings this series was the Mitchell/Voynov defense pairing as they had a lot of problems when it came to preventing scoring chances against. Rookie defender Voynov definitely got exposed a few times and had quite a few miscues in his own end, so it isn't too surprising to see that these two were outchanced. I didn't think it would be by this big of a scope, though.
I do wonder how much Mitchell's numbers relate to playing with Voynov because he was much better at preventing chances on the PK than he was at even strength. Either way, the play of the rest of the defense corps made this not that big of an issue.
Kings Even Strength Scoring Chance Differentials
SCF 15 = Number of LA scoring chances that the player was on ice for per 15 minutes, SCA 15 = Number of PHX scoring chances the player was on ice for per 15 minutes, Diff/15 = Scoring chance differential per 15 minutes. Chart sorted by scoring chance differential
This chart should better illustrate how dominant Doughty, Scuderi, Williams, Kopitar and Brown were. The Kings' top-five was just oustanding at both creating and preventing chances. Keep in mind that Doughty and Scuderi usually play the toughest minutes on the team, so for them to allow so few chances against at even strength speaks volumes about the quality of their play. You can also see that Doughty outplayed Scuderi by quite a bit.
Alec Martinez had the highest differential among every player which might surprise some but he does play significantly easier minutes than the rest of the defense corps. Both Martinez and Greene are used against third lines more than anything else but you can't blame them for playing their role effectively. Just remember that they were protected when evaluating them. Still, on most teams the third pairing is only expected not to be a liability but the Kings had two quality players in that role which is another reason why they got this far.
Earlier I said that the Richards line was better defensively than they were against Phoenix and while that statement is true, they still had some problems when it came to preventing chances. Richards and Penner struggled a lot more in that area than Carter did, though.
Devils Scoring Chances by Player
For how much talk there was about Ilya Kovalchuk playing through an injury and struggling because of it, he was actually one of New Jersey's best forwards this series. He was one of only six players to have a positive scoring chance differential, led all forwards in scoring chances for and was on ice for all but one of their chances on the powerplay.
His injury may have been a reason why New Jersey's offense wasn't as effective as it could have been, but those who believed he was the Devils' biggest problem in this series clearly weren't paying attention. A much bigger problem was that both Travis Zajac and Zach Parise were neutralized by Doughty & Scuderi.
Defense was also a major concern for the Devils because while their blueline isn't terrible, they do not match up well with the Kings. Case and point, they had Bryce Salvador & Marek Zidlicky skating against Kopitar for the first three games of the series and you can see how that turned out. Salvador was lauded for his point production but he was getting hammered in the defensive zone more than any other New Jersey blue-liner.
Pete DeBoer tried to change things up by putting him with Anton Volchenkov while inserting Henrik Tallinder into the lineup to have him play with Marek Zidlicky. This didn't help Savaldor much but Tallinder managed to provide some relief for the rest of the defense corps. However, I do think it was interesting that he replaced Peter Harrold when there were other defensemen who were playing worse.
The other move that was made was having Petr Sykora inserted into the lineup in place of Jacob Josefson. This move didn't work out at all as Sykora was sigificantly worse than Josefson in the scoring chance department. My guess is that DeBoer made the switch to add another goal-scorer to the lineup but Sykora didn't provide much help at all to New Jersey. Perhaps the other reason for this move could have been to slide Patrik Elias back to center, but they weren't using him in a shutdown role so I'm not sure how much that would have changed things.
If there's one positive New Jersey can take away from this series it is the play of Adam Henrique. His linemates were a revolving door but he was able to work with just about everyone and had the highest scoring chance differential on the Devils. With the Kings top unit taking care of Parise & Zajac, one of Henrique or Elias needed to step forward and you can see that Henrique certainly did. He was poor on special teams but there isn't much to complain about concerning his production at even strength. The big caveat is that he started 73.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone in the finals, which gave him a territorial advantage over others.
Devils Even Strength Scoring Chance Differentials
It's easy to see where things went wrong for the Devils here. David Clarkson, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jacob Josefson and Adam Henrique can not be producing more chances than Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. When that happens you know that your top players aren't getting the job done. Zajac and Parise had to be a lot better but they spent a lot of time against Kopitar's line & Drew Doughty, and it's hard to come out on top in that matchup no matter who you are.
I also mentioned the possibility of using Elias in a shutdown role against Kopitar but he didn't appear to be doing that well defensively according to this. It looks like Henrique outperformed Elias defensively here, but Henrique got much easier zone starts than him.
The Devils' fourth line has received a lot of praise for their play in the post-season but they were giving up almost double the amount of chances that they were creating. We see this every year. There is always a few "grinders" on a playoff team who step up and score some timely goals but the truth is that they are replacable and, in most cases, not very good. Carter, Gionta and Bernier all fall under that category.
I am going to let Bryce Salvador's numbers speak for themselves. It's largely irrelevant how many points he recorded this post-season, he was crushed in this series and any team looking for a defenseman this off-season needs to twice before signing him. Yes, he was given a tough matchup but when your numbers are that bad compared to the rest of the defense, there is a lot more going on. He was still getting destroyed when DeBoer tried to protect him by placing him on the third pairing with Volchenkov.
It's surprising that he played more minutes at even strength than any other Devil.
Head to Head at Five on Five
The big thing that sticks out about the head-to-head numbers is how good Doughty and Scuderi were compared to Mitchell & Voynov. Doughty and Scuderi managed to beat every single matchup the Devils threw at them, while Mitchell & Voynov struggled immensely. How badly they were beaten by the Devils second and third lines is surprising nullified how good Doughty & Scuderi were against the Zajac unit. Winning any matchup in a series by five or more is very impressive but losing one by that amount is awful no matter what.
It is a good thing that the Kings top defense pairing and first two lines played as well as they did or the play of the Voynov/Mitchell pairing would have been a serious problem. The Kopitar line crushed their matchup against the Zajac trio and won all of their matchups against the Devils defense. The Richards line also did some impressive work and were able to take advantage of some of the weaker matchups (i.e. Devils fourth line).
The only time that the Devils' first line was able to generate a lot of offense is when they were playing against the Kings' third line. They actually beat them by a considerable margin and Kovalchuk did some serious damage against them.
Head to Head Ice Time
DeBoer changed his strategy throughout the series. He started things off by matching his first line against the Kopitar line & Doughty/Scuderi but that didn't work out. He then tried to get those two on out against the Mitchell/Voynov defense pairing which worked more in his favor than the power vs. power approach did. As for the defense pairings, Marek Zidlicky actually spent the most time against Kopitar while the rest of the defense corps had their ice time spread around against the LA top-six.
While DeBoer made a few changes, Darryl Sutter didn't do much with his lineup and stuck with the same matchups throughout the series. He continued to use Kopitar, Richards, Doughty & Mitchell against tough competition and protected the fourth line & third defense pairing. He did seem to trust Stoll and company with some tougher minutes, though. The only lineup change he made was replacing Brad Richardson with Simon Gagne.
Head to Head Chances per 15 minutes
Parise and Zajac took a huge thumping from the Kings' first line and they also posted some very poor numbers against the LA fourth line, too. They managed to make some of that up against the Stoll line but eventually learned to keep that line away from those two. Instead, Stoll, Lewis & King feasted on the Devils fourth line, who were crushed by them and the Richards line.
The Devils had some big matchup wins, as well with the most glaring one being Clarkson's work against Voynov & Mitchell. The Kings won the majority of the key matchups in the series, though.