108 games! That’s how many games the Los Angeles Kings needed to play in order to win the Stanley Cup. Of those 108 games, 71 of them came through arguably the roughest terrain in NHL history: this year’s Western Conference.
As I mentioned in my Pacific Division preview, Los Angeles has only won one division title in their history (1990-91), so it is not in their nature to dominate in the regular season. Boy did they not do that one bit as the Kings were a disaster offensively (25th in goals scored and 27th in power play efficiency). Dustin Brown was probably the worst superstar in the NHL (15:30 TOI, 27 points in 79 games) and Jonathan Quick missed a quarter of the season to a groin injury. Against that Western Conference, the Kings went 25-20-5 and finished behind Anaheim and San Jose in the Pacific Division.
They would face these two teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs and they had to come back from 3-0 and 3-2 deficits respectively in order to advance. But if there is one thing the Kings had throughout the regular season is having the best puck possession team in the league. In fact, they have a comfortable margin over everyone else in Corsi (shot on and off target, plus blocked shots) for the last three years. With the lack of goal scoring, Los Angeles traded away recent acquisition Matt Frattin to get Marian Gaborik, one of the fastest skaters and greatest offensive players of his draft class, but has struggled mightily to stay healthy throughout his career.
This year was no exception as he missed 17 games to a sprained knee and 22 games to a broken collarbone. Beforehand, he had injured his groin six times and missed his final year as a member of the Minnesota Wild from back issues and a hip surgery. These chronic injuries slowly eroded Gaborik’s skating ability when playing for the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. To see him grilled by John Tortorella in “24/7 Rangers-Flyers” now looks like verbal abuse in hindsight. He was still a top-line playmaker, but now he is seen as a role player more than a centerpiece of the team. When traded to Los Angeles, Kings management understood this and had him on a top line with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter two years ago, Gaborik did not need to worry about his role and he got back to being a difference maker as a result. The offense improved over time and the Kings went 11-6-2 to finish off the regular season.
The team was still not elite and they started the playoffs going down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks, an offensive juggernaut looking for one last run to the Stanley Cup before Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle got too old. In those first three games, the Kings were doing everything right offensively, with 64.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes in 144.8 even strength minutes, but the 56.8 shot attempts per 60 given up would have been good for only 22nd in the NHL in the regular season. They also got into rotten starts thanks to only having 82.1 close-score even strength minutes (that’s only 44% of the first three games of the series) and were out-fenwicked (shots on and off target only) 56-65 during that time. Those 47.5 unblocked shots against per 60 would have have been the 2nd worst in the NHL during the regular season.
They were turning things around by attempting more unblocked shots than the Sharks per 60 minutes, 46.0 to 43.5, in 48.3 of the 66.5 minutes played in game 3, but the Patrick Marleau overtime winner made their efforts futile. Darryl Sutter made two major changes to turn the series around. First, he realized Mike Richards was no longer the same elite player and sent him to the fourth line throughout the rest of the playoffs. Next, he inserted 21-year old Tanner Pearson into the lineup, who despite only having 7 points in 25 regular season games, added speed that was needed to decrease the opportunity of giving the Sharks the puck and more shot attempts. With that, Jonathan Quick played better and so did their penalty kill. While having just a decent kill this year, Los Angeles went from going only 9/12 in the first three games to giving up only one goal in 20 attempts the rest of the series. It’s these improvements that were the reason the Kings outscored San Jose 18-5 in their four wins to advance to the next round. The Kings did not get better defensively as they only out-attempted the Sharks 171-170 the rest of the series on even strength. Overall, they still gave up 58.3 shot attempts per 60 in those seven games, but they increased their unblocked shots from 40.9 per 60 in the first three games to 46.6 per 60 for the rest of the series.
Next up was Bruce Boudreau hockey (aka. quirky-and-lucky yet fast-and-exciting). The Kings won the first two games, but that came with Robyn Regehr missing the rest of the playoffs with a knee injury in game 1. In came in Jeff Schultz who Washington could not wait to cut bait with last offseason and Matt Greene who has been injury plagued the last two seasons. Again, the Kings did not get off to a great start in defense by giving up 67.3 shot attempts and 51.5 unblocked shots per 60 in the first three games. Then, Bruce Boudreau did Bruce Boudreau things by bringing in John Gibson for game four, despite winning game three. Gibson would win the next two games despite the Kings out-attempting the Ducks a whopping 59-22 in 90.5 even strength minutes (despite the fenwick score being 11-10 in 33.7 close-score even strength minutes). In a tight-shooting contest, the Kings restored their puck luck and won the game six 2-1 with Jonathan Quick out-performing Gibson. Then Los Angeles would put #TeemuForever to the sword in game seven, 6-2. In the last two games, the Kings would thrash the Ducks 31-16 in unblocked shots in 27.2 close-score even strength minutes.
The series that made stat-heads smile with glee as the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks were next. After losing game one, Jeff Schultz was removed and in came Willie Mitchell. Darryl Sutter’s lineup never changed the rest of the playoffs because he realized that what made Los Angeles at their best was fighting fire with fire with their offense. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson became bigger factors in the playoffs (14 points in 26 games for Toffoli. 12 points in 24 games for Pearson.) than in the regular season (29 points in 62 games for Toffoli. As mentioned, 7 points in 25 games for Pearson.) and their pace freed up Jeff Carter (25 points in 26 games) to form an exciting second line. After smashing the Blackhawks 6-2 in game two, the series was on. It was a beautiful and evenly played matchup throughout games three through six that fans wish could last 100 games instead of seven.
In that decisive game, there were not that many unblocked shots during the close-game situations (13-21 in 36.8 even strength minutes, despite the shot attempts being 42-39). Despite Chicago having two goal leads, Los Angeles would smash them in the corsi count 64-45 in 55.4 even strength minutes. That tilting of the ice would be too much for Corey Crawford and the Kings would come back and win in overtime to make it back to the Stanley Cup finals.
Despite struggling through the Western Conference, the Kings were 21-8-3 against the Eastern Conference. Only St. Louis and San Jose posted better records against such a feeble group of NHL teams. The New York Rangers had a great year in puck possession under first year head coach Alain Vigenault, but you would think with a win-loss record like that, the finals would be like a coronation for the Kings. That is exactly what would happen with game 5 being the icing on the cake. Despite winning in double overtime, the Kings out-attempted the Rangers 107-55 in 79.7 even strength minutes and had more unblocked shots by a wide margin (76-38 in 72 close-score even strength minutes). Sure, there were some weird and nutty moments throughout the series, but the season-long narrative of the West being better than the East held true until the very end.
One other player I thought about throughout the Cup run was Alec Martinez. He played his first full NHL season as a 23-year old in 2011, but the Kings would lose to San Jose in round one that year. The next year, he was out of the lineup with the rise of Slava Voynov, only to regain his spot back after GM Dean Lombardi traded heralded starter Jack Johnson in the Jeff Carter trade and then win a Stanley Cup while playing all 20 playoff games. Martinez would go back to the press box after Jake Muzzin developed into a full-time NHLer and Robyn Regehr was brought in at the trade deadline to replace the injured Matt Greene that season. Despite Rob Scuderi returning to Pittsburgh in this summer and Willie Mitchell being past his prime and recovering from a torn ACL, Martinez came into training camp battling with Keaton Ellerby and Jeff Schultz for the seventh defenseman spot on the team. However, he would be back in the lineup after Matt Greene’s body broke down again due to an upper body injury and a concussion. During the playoff run, you would think that when Greene returned to the lineup or when the Kings needed to get better defensively, Martinez would be the one to be benched. Instead, he was brilliant and capped off his tremendous playoff run by scoring at a farther rate than any playoff run with 5 goals and 10 points in all 26 games. It had to be fitting for a guy like him to be the defenseman to join in on the rush and score the goal off the rebounding shot by Tyler Toffoli and clinch the Stanley Cup.
So where do the Kings go from here? Anaheim is in the driver’s seat this offseason with two first round picks (including the 10th overall pick thanks to the Bobby Ryan trade) in the draft and plenty of cap space thanks to the Teemu Selanne retirement and the possibility of letting expensive veterans Stephane Robidas, Jonas Hiller and Saku Koivu walk. San Jose is still lurking as long as Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are driving the offense with Thornton and Marleau gradually drifting to the sunset. Chicago will always stay around as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are still at the peak of their powers. What about St. Louis with still a good mix of young and veteran talent all across the board (that depends if Ryan Miller stays or how much Jake Allen or Brian Elliott can rise to the challenge)? Can Dallas or Colorado improve their defense and/or goaltending while the forwards are still fun to watch? Barring anything dumb coming out of the Western Conference, I don’t see the ice shifting to the Eastern Conference’s favor anytime soon and that is not a good sign to the current Champions. But as of late, the playoffs seem to be won on the excel spreadsheet as much as on the ice and that is what makes the Los Angeles Kings a favorite until further notice.