Western Conference Battle Royale: The Man (Dis)Advantage

The shortened season and two rounds of the playoffs have rushed by like a freight train. Tomorrow is the first day of June and the four best teams in the NHL take the ice in the conference finals in the quest for the Cup.

For the first time since 1945 the conference finals pit the four previous Stanley Cup Champions against one another. There’s no rest for the Kings or Blackhawks, both seventh game victors and somehow favorites to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Jonathan Quick and Corey Crawford have led their teams from their nets. After a shaky season Quick has not only returned but improved from his Conn Smythe performance from last postseason. Through 13 games the Kings’ goalie has allowed 1.5 goals/game with a .948 save percentage and three shutouts. Quick is standing on his head but reports say he’s been seen levitating down Sunset Boulevard like some half sorcerer/half magician curing the blind and healing the sick.

Corey Crawford looks to dethrone Quick, putting together a Conn Smythe worthy effort and outdueling Jimmy Howard last round. The Blackhawks record setting rampage in the beginning of the season, high octane offense, and roster of stars positioned Crawford in a great but precarious situation: if the team didn’t win the Cup it was his fault.

The Chicago goalie has allowed 1.7 goals/game posting a .938 save percentage and one shutout. The Blackhawks go as Crawford does and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Once the question mark and center of debate Crawford has become the team’s constant bright spot and exclamation point. If Crawford outplays Quick the Blackhawks win the series. Period.

The easiest (using that term loosely) way to score on phenomenal goalies is with a man advantage. The Kings and Blackhawks will need every weapon in their arsenal and advantage they can get. Every goal in the series will be celebrated because they’ll be few and far between.

The most bizarre matchups in the series will take place when a player is sent to the penalty box. This postseason the Kings and Blackhawks have committed more penalties than they’ve received (42/35, 41/37; respectively).

Blackhawks' Penalty Kill vs. Kings' Power Play

The Blackhawks possess a phenomenal penalty killing unit with a ridiculous 97% kill rate (40/41) through two series. Chicago will rely heavily on Corey Crawford to propel the Hawks past the Kings.

When playing a man down Crawford has a .985 save percentage allowing only one goal on 67 shots. What is amazing about Chicago’s penalty killing success is they give up tons of shots – 1.6 shots/penalty this postseason and the number climbs to 1.76 shots/penalty at the United Center.

The Kings’ power play unit has been mildly successful sitting directly on a 20% (7/35) success rate. What is amazing about Los Angeles’ power play unit is the team doesn’t rely on the man advantage to win. Through 13 games this post season the Kings are 3-2 when they score a power play goal and 5-3 when they can’t convert.

Throughout the playoffs last year the Kings’ power play was atrocious. Despite posting a 16-4 playoff mark and capturing their first Stanley Cup the Kings finished the post season at 12.8% on the man advantage, which was the fifth lowest of all sixteen playoff teams (the three lowest - San Jose, Boston, and Chicago were eliminated in the first round). The power play was so bad that at one point during the Western Conference finals the Kings were 6/66 (9%).

It’s important to note last year’s power play performance to understand why the Kings are successful. The man advantage is essentially an added bonus rather than a necessary opportunity for the Kings to score. This situation poses a threat to the Blackhawks transforming one of their strengths into a mandatory kill.

What the Blackhawks need: Chicago needs to continue its mind-boggling kill rate. Allowing the Kings to score on power plays isn’t necessarily a deal breaker (the Kings were only 3-2 in games they scored) but it will create more pressure on their offense to beat Jonathan Quick.

The penalty kill needs to limit the number of shots and clear the puck. The Kings defensemen – Doughty, Muzzin, Voynov – are snipers and if they can’t hit the net Williams, Carter, and Brown pose a threat on the crease.

What the Kings need: The Kings need to score a couple of power play goals to give Quick and the defense some leeway against a high octane Chicago offense. Judging by the amount of shots the Hawks give up the Kings should find some success through their forecheck and rebounds. It’s crucial for the struggling Kopitar to get involved in the series early.

Blackhawks' Power Play vs. Kings' Penalty Kill

The Hawks’ power play against the Kings’ penalty kill can determine the outcome of the series. Of the two man advantage matchups this one will be crucial game to game. Chicago has not been able to mount constant pressure on the man advantage and find themselves with a 16% conversion rate. The Hawks are 6/37 through two series with 49 shots. During Chicago’s comeback against Detroit the unit scored three power play goals in the final three games (two in game five, one in game six, none in game seven).

The Blackhawks have relied (but are not completely dependent) on scoring power play goals to win games. Chicago is 5-0 when scoring a man advantage goal as opposed to their 3-4 record when they haven’t tallied. The electrifying offense of Toews & Co. have disposed of quality goal tender Jimmy Howard and could benefit from the Kings’ aggressive and highly penalized play to pressure Quick.

The Kings’ penalty kill faced a formidable Shark power play and did just enough to win the series. With the home-ice set in Chicago’s favor the Kings’ power play will have to improve their play on the road. Against the Sharks the disparity of play in the Staples Center and on the road was enormous. On the road the unit went 10/15 (66%) compared to their 12/12 (100%) mark in Los Angeles.

Throughout the postseason the penalty kill is 36/42 (85%). Part of the penalty killing unit’s success is allowing only 1.04 shots/penalty, which has helped Quick post his amazing numbers.

What the Blackhawks’ Power Play needs: Chicago needs to take advantage on their extra man opportunities. If the Hawks can get over the 20% mark they will push the Kings out of their comfort zone causing them to rely on their offense rather than Quick and the defense. The Kings’ penalty unit creates the wind for the team’s sails; a couple of goals could crush Los Angeles.

What the Kings’ Penalty Kill needs: Los Angeles needs to stay out of the penalty box. Chicago’s speed will create problems for the Kings (especially in the beginning of the series) so the penalty kill in the first game could set the tone for the series. The Kings have not faced a power play unit (or team) better at passing around the crease than the Blackhawks.

The Kings’ unit needs to be disciplined. The defensemen need to be aware of their zones and not abandon them based on puck location. Quick is aggressive around the crease leading the focus of the defensemen to the slot.

 Overall Edge: Kings

The Blackhawks face the unenviable position of needing to kill penalties and score on power plays. Of the four units (Chicago – pp/pk, Kings – pp/pk) the Blackhawks have the best group in their penalty kill. The problem for the Blackhawks is they must convert on both ends. The Kings on the other hand need to post a combined percentage of around 100 in order to be successful (e.g. Kings power play goes 13% and their penalty kill goes 85% that would equal 98).

The Blackhawks have the better two units but rely on them heavily. It becomes difficult to produce when a team’s strength becomes  a liability out of necessity.