The fight for the puck was always going to be a big part of this series.
The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s best possession team all year (57 per cent). The New York Rangers were up above 55 per cent from the midpoint of the year on.
After Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, however, those numbers between these two teams haven’t been nearly that close. The Kings have had 60 per cent of the series' shots on goal at even strength (121-82) and more than 55 per cent of the unblocked shot attempts in close situations.
Why that’s happening comes down to some of the individual matchups going on. LA’s depth is winning out here over New York’s, tilting the ice in the Kings direction and putting more pressure on Henrik Lundqvist than Jonathan Quick’s seeing at the other end.
That’s part of the reason they’re leading the series 3-1 and favoured to end it in Game 5 at home.
Here’s a quick and dirty look at some of the analytics from this series, with the caveat that we’re only dealing with four games here. But we can still see some interesting trends in what’s happening with the possession battle.
The four columns here are ice time at even strength, average zone starts, quality of competition and possession, which is measured by shot attempts for and against at even strength (more on these stats can be found at extraskater.com).
What we can see here is that the Kings second (third?) line with Jeff Carter in the middle of the two youngsters has been very, very effective again in this series. Those aren’t particularly easy minutes, either, and they're winning the battles again and again.
Stoll and Brown, meanwhile, have struggled at times with the pace of the series, but what coach Darryl Sutter’s done a good job of is really balancing his lines, using Brown with Kopitar and Gaborik, and Stoll with Williams.
Those weren’t combinations we saw all that often during the season, but they’re working here to ensure LA doesn’t have any one line that’s a real weakness. That includes Mike Richards with Lewis and Clifford, which is properly sheltered as a fourth line, and every other unit has good enough support that they can skate with who they’re matched up with on the other side.
That's good coaching.
Martin St. Louis
The Rangers are having the opposite problem. They have two of their top three lines playing the Kings relatively to a draw, but the trio of Hagelin, Richards and St. Louis has been a mess in just about every way imaginable.
They’re a big time minus in the plus-minus column and a huge drain on New York establishing any kind of momentum in the offensive zone – a huge problem especially considering the line has three of the Rangers more important scoring options on it.
Brad Richards was bumped to the fourth line for a reason in Game 4.
Given they’re the underdogs here, there’s nothing too alarming in what they’re getting from their other lines. But the Pouliot, Brassard and Zuccarello unit has really been the only one effectively outscoring the Kings.
It’s been a really impressive series for LA’s second pair of Mitchell and Voynov, who have the benefit of not getting as difficult of matchups as Doughty-Muzzin but have handled everything they’ve been dealt very well.
Mitchell doesn’t get enough credit for how integral he is to this team, something you could really see in his absence last year. He’s battled injuries and has had some tough games earlier in the postseason but has come up big in this series.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s obviously with the Kings third pairing, which still manages to tread water in relatively easy minutes. Greene looks slow and has been beaten to the outside, but he’s been a help on the penalty kill. Sutter’s also kept this duo’s minutes low enough at even strength that they haven’t been a big factor either way.
Again, the Rangers have a clear problem here, one that was highlighted by coach Alain Vigneault suddenly giving the Staal-Stralman pair more of the Kopitar assignment in Game 4.
To the eye test and these numbers and whatever other method you want to use, Girardi has had a terrible series, with a couple high profile mistakes turning into goals against. McDonagh, by virtue of playing with him for the vast majority of his minutes, hasn’t looked great either.
Like the Kings, the Rangers have a little-used third pairing that manages fine for what it is. Also like the Kings, their second pairing has been by far their best, with Staal-Stralman handling a ridiculous number of defensive zone starts and not getting hemmed in.
But New York can’t win this series with its top pairing playing like this against a team as good as the Kings, something that will be a significant storyline if this ends in Game 5 on Friday.
And again in the off-season, given Stralman could walk as a free agent and Girardi is locked up long term.
That could potentially hurt the Rangers blueline for a while.