Western Conference Finals: A Battle of Possession Monsters

The matchup is set. It is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. It is also a match between the two possession giants in the league this year. L.A. finished first in the league with a 56.7 FF% in score close 5 on 5 situations while Chicago finished right behind them in second with a 55.2 FF%. This translated well into goals for percentage as Chicago finished third with 56% and L.A. finished seventh with 53.8%. It’s clear both of these teams weren’t very good with sharing the puck during the regular season, so who is going to have an advantage in this series? It’s going to take a more granular look to decide who has the advantage.

The first player that garners a lot of attention is Jonathan Toews. You would assume that he is the best player in this series based on how he is talked about, but he may not be the best center in this series. Anze Kopitar has quietly – as he often does – put up points and carried his team with help from Marian Gaborik. Unlike last year, Kopitar is having a great playoffs with a league-leading 17 points. Both centers are nominated for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the top defensive forward, but Kopitar is the only one who seems to deserve the nomination between the two. Toews and Kopitar both played against top competition during the regular season, but Quenneville mostly gave Toews controlled offensive zone starts 63.6% of the time. Meanwhile, Kopitar’s offensive zone start percentage was 52.1%. Using a player chart from Extraskater can help evaluate the players together. Take a look at the player usage chart below:

We can see that Toews and Kopitar are both world class centers. Kopitar faced slightly tougher zone starts while Toews faced slightly tougher competition. Kopitar and Toews both had absurd corsi-for percentages (all shots directed towards net including missed and block shots) of 61% and 59.3% respectively. They play big minutes and will play against each other numerous times this series. We will have to wait to see which center will have the advantage. It is a matchup worth paying attention to.

Both of these teams have offensive talent and depth beyond their top-line centers. The acquisition of Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline has given the Kings a top-line scoring presence they haven’t had in years. Having Gaborik has helped the Kings deal with the decline of Mike Richards as well as the average play from Dustin Brown. If the Kings are going to score in this series, players like Gaborik, Kopitar, and Doughty are going to need to continue their strong play.

Outside of their star players, the Kings have restructured their depth forwards with more youth and talent rather than grit and physical play like in recent years. The increased scoring they are getting by replacing players along the lines of Daniel Carcillo (traded) and Colin Fraser (healthy-scratch) with young prospects like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson has been a big difference between this year and last. Their physical presence is still noticeable, but they have improved their speed and offensive ability, although it hasn’t entirely translated into goal scoring this year.

Where the Kings have increased their forward depth, the Hawks have remained the envy of the rest of league when it comes to offensive depth. Their “core” players on offense consist of Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp, all of whom have 5 on 5 CF% above 50%. the secondary scoring is being supplied from Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, and Andrew Shaw (when healthy). The Versteeg trade earlier this year was supposed to be key for the playoffs, but he has so far played well below expectations.

The story on the defensive side is very similar. The Kings may have actually improved defensively with injuries to Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell, slow and aging defensemen whose best assets now are their ability to hit. The keystones of the King defensive corps are easily Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov although Jake Muzzin may soon pass Voynov as the number 2 defenseman on the team. Beyond the top 3 d-men, L.A. is rather pedestrian made up of names like Matt Greene, Alec Martinez, and Jeff Schultz. In fact, Voynov has been one of the worst Kings players in terms of corsi relative (a player’s corsi compared to the team’s corsi while that player is not on the ice. Voynov’s is -7.5%.)

Chicago’s defense has been much more lackluster during the playoffs when compared to the regular season. Every pairing has struggled at times. The only pairing that is allowed off the hook is the Oduya-Hjalmarsson pairing who have faced the toughest competition all year. Only Leddy and Rozsival have positive corsi-for numbers relative to the team when they are not on the ice. This is an issue as it appears Q prefers Brookbank to Rozsival at this point. If the Hawks are to succeed, they need their “top” pairing of Keith and Seabrook to be the possession players they can be. A key part of the Blackhawks’ offense is the ability of their d-men to create offense and breakout quickly, often using the stretch pass to create a rush. Minnesota did an excellent job of eliminating the stretch pass and forcing Chicago to dump the puck in. Chicago will have a hard time creating offense if Los Angeles can replicate what Minnesota accomplished in round 2.

A common theme of this series for Chicago will be if they can play their game. They will control much of the play if they play the fast, possession game they are comfortable with. Their forward and defense corps both have slight advantages over those of the Kings, but the Kings are a great defensive team and can severely limit the shot attempts from the Hawks. This is a series that may come down to goaltending, and the skill level of Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick is much closer than you may think.

When it comes to goaltending, the so called “analysts” on NBC Sports Network would have you believe that Jonathan Quick is one of the best goalies in the league. To them, it’s not even close if it’s between Jonathan Quick and Corey Crawford. Let’s take a look at the numbers to see if they back up this belief.

This playoffs, Jonathan Quick has a mediocre save percentage of .914. What helps him is his career playoff save percentage of .926 which is skewed from two very impressive post-season runs of .946 and .934 with the former being his numbers during the Kings’ Stanley Cup run two seasons ago. He does not have a save percentage above .914 in each of his other three playoff seasons. Maximizing sample size, Jonathan Quick has a career save percentage of .915, a very average number.

Corey Crawford, on the other hand, has received a lot of attention due to his poor glove hand since last year’s playoffs, which I believe is nothing more than beat writers and “experts” looking for narratives. So far in these playoffs, Crawford has an impressive save percentage of .931,  tied for first in the league with none-other than the immaculate Henrik Lundqvist. Crawford’s career save percentage in the playoffs is .926, exactly the same as Jonathan Quick’s. Further adding to the similarities, Crawford’s career regular season save percentage is .914, only one off of Jonathan Quick’s supposedly stellar .915. This leads me to conclude that the difference between these goalies is much smaller than you will hear about going into this series.

Despite their numerical similarities, these two goalies play much different styles. Corey Crawford is a much more “scientific” goalie. He uses his large size and butterfly style to cut down the angle. Further, he plays much deeper in his net than Jonathan Quick does. Crawford doesn’t often make highlight reel saves because his positioning is generally very good. His biggest concern with this playing style is his tendency to go down too early and expose the top of the net.

Conversely, Quick (almost the antithesis to Corey Crawford in terms of playing style), plays aggressive by playing at the top of the crease and cutting down the angle of the shooter. This aggressive style leads Quick to be out of position frequently. A great article written earlier this year looked into Quick’s aggressive playing style. The conclusion the article made was that if L.A.’s defense wasn’t able to cover up loose pucks, Quick’s playing style becomes a hindrance to the team’s success. Odd man rushes end up being extremely difficult situations for Quick. He has to struggle to find his positioning and angle when skaters pass the puck side-to-side in these situations, leading to highlight reel saves or goals. A goalie is at his best when he can see the puck and when he is square to the shooter. Having to move and adjust the angle at the same time is very difficult for goalies. If the Blackhawks want to be successful against Quick, they should work on puck movement to get Quick off of his positioning. It has seemed to work in the past…

So, we can see by looking at the numbers that these two goalies are much closer in talent level than perception has proven. They are both average goalies, but their playing styles lead to different conclusions. Because Crawford appears to be in position for many of his goals, people believe he lets in too many soft goals or that his glove hand is bad. Quick gets credit for being a great goaltender because he is often out of position and needs to make acrobatic saves. He is incredibly athletic, but our perception is skewed because of this. This is essentially the Derek Jeter Effect in the NHL. Jeter has made a reputation for making great diving plays, but it is more due to his poor jump on ground balls rather than his outstanding defensive ability. Much like Jeter, Quick has to rely on his athletic ability to make saves. We confuse this athleticism for elite talent. Both of these goalies post similar numbers but each team should approach the goalie situation much differently. If the Kings can get their shots up when Crawford is down, and the Hawks can get Quick moving side-to-side we may see that these goalies are a lot closer in talent level than previously believed

Overall, the Hawks are going to have to do something in this series they haven’t done all playoffs; play their game. The first round was fairly even with the Hawks finally pulling ahead in the third period of game 6. The second round was eerily similar to last year’s second round as the Hawks couldn’t control the puck for much of the series. This series has potential to be very close and one of the best we have seen in a long time. The Kings have improved since last year while the Hawks have maintained their play on their quest to be the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in more than 10 years. The Hawks will win this series if they play like the possession team they were in the regular season. If not, it could be a very frustrating series for the Blackhawks and their fans.

*Numbers from Extraskater.com and NHL.com

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