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Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin (6) celebrates with teammates Jeff Carter (77) , Dustin Brown (23) , Drew Doughty (8) and Tyler Toffoli (73) after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period in game four of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Staples Center. (USA TODAY Sports)

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin (6) celebrates with teammates Jeff Carter (77) , Dustin Brown (23) , Drew Doughty (8) and Tyler Toffoli (73) after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period in game four of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Staples Center.

(USA TODAY Sports)

Mirtle: Kings a good example of why hockey's analytics work Add to ...

The Los Angeles Kings are an odd team, statistically speaking.

The best example of that is the fact they entered the playoffs as the lowest scoring team to make it, with only 2.42 goals per game during the season.

Edmonton scored more goals.

So did Calgary, Carolina and Phoenix.

But 21 games into the playoffs, the Kings can't stop scoring. They're first overall with almost 3.5 goals per game and have four of the NHL's top five postseason scorers.

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And that's happening while facing better teams than they often did during the season.

You can try and rationalize an explanation for something like that, by pointing to the addition of Marian Gaborik maybe, or trying to discern a change in their system or style.

You can also point to the fact the Kings haven't really faced a world beater in goal yet, which naturally leads to a boosted goal total.

But the truth is, this kind of fluctuation actually happens all over the NHL, every year, and the best explanation is actually that there is no explanation for a lot of the increase.

It's random. And that's hockey.

More on that in a second.

The chart above is the Kings shooting percentage on a 10-game rolling average going all the way back to the start of the 2011-12 season, when they eventually won their first Stanley Cup.

Over that span, Los Angeles has been a fairly low percentage shooting team, converting on 8.2 per cent of their chances, which means opposition goaltenders have had a very strong .918 save percentage against them for three years of games.

For the most part, they sit close to being an 8 per cent shooting team, too, based on the chart, but there are all sorts of little valleys and peaks in there that make a big difference.

How big?

The first valley, then-coach Terry Murray was fired.

The first peak late in the year, they made the playoffs as an eighth seed and won the Stanley Cup.

Their shooting percentage during the season was 7.5. In the playoffs it was 9.3.

For an average team generating an average number of shots, that's more than half a goal a game right there and it was enough to help win a championship.

It'd be tempting to credit coach Darryl Sutter for the change, except he's the coach this season and again the team had about a 7.5 per cent shooting percentage during the season.

So far in these playoffs, it's up over 11 per cent, which is what you see at the far right of the graph above and a large part of why they lead the playoffs in scoring.

(If you're making predictions, one decent one is that the Kings will have a much tougher time scoring in the final, simply due to regression. And, you know, Henrik Lundqvist.)

Hockey statisticians have spent years looking at shooting percentage, trying to boil down how much of it is team talent and how much of it is random. The answer again and again, at the team level, is that its fluctuations are heavily luck based (i.e. not repeatable).

Because of that, looking at how many goals a team scored during a 30- or 40-game stretch isn't always a great predictor of how they'll do in the future.

That's why analysts have started to look more at how well teams control the play and have possession, something the Kings have always excelled at. Despite being a very low scoring team all year, they remained a popular Cup pick in the analytics community simply because of their possession rating of nearly 57 per cent, tops in the NHL.

There's a lot of controversy over these stats around the league right now, but that's the simplest way I can lay out the foundation of the basic argument behind it. The Kings are a special case in that they appear to have wilder fluctuations in some of these numbers than most teams, and their style of play leaves them with an often low shooting percentage, but they're an instructive case here in why possession matters in terms of forecasting results.

You can't always count on getting great shooting or save percentages when you need them (and LA hasn't always been getting great goaltending). If you have the right system and players, however, you can count on having the puck, driving play and generating chances.

As stated here in the past, possession stats aren't everything when it comes to winning games. Goalies matter. Special teams matter. Scoring talent matters.

But what possession is is the most consistent and sustainable factor involved, which is important to know when you're analyzing teams based on how they'll perform in the future. 

The Kings did that better than any other team this season, and that's part of why they're back in their second Cup final in three years. The Rangers, meanwhile, over the second half of the season, weren't that far behind, which is why they were a popular dark horse pick to win the East.

Now we'll see who wins that battle for the puck, who gets the bounces, the saves and the best chances, and how much it all contributes to winning the Cup.

 

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