The performance of the Los Angeles Kings in these playoffs is both a total victory and a complete destruction of the idea of parity in the NHL. It proves once and for all that an 8th seed can succeed in the playoffs, a victory for parity and sure to be used by General Managers for years to defend their plans to eke their way into the postseason and hope for the best. Simultaneously, they’ve been so completely dominant in the playoffs that the idea of parity seems like a bad joke.
The Kings are just one game away from sweeping the Devils to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history. Enroute to the final, they’ve lost just two games, one to the 1st seed Vancouver Canucks and one to the 3rd seed Phoenix Coyotes. They have gone up 3-0 in every single series, have yet to lose a game on the road, and have outscored their opponents 49 to 24.
With their win in New Jersey in game two, the Kings have tied the record for most road wins in the playoffs, a record held by the 1995 and 2000 New Jersey Devils and the 2004 Calgary Flames. If they lose game four, they’ll have a chance to break that record. Alternately, they could win game four and tie the record for the fewest games needed to win the Stanley Cup held by the 1988 Edmonton Oilers, which is slightly more prestigious company.
How did a team this good end up in 8th place in the Western Conference? Why did such a dominant team have a mediocre regular season?
One way to look at this is to consider that perhaps the Kings weren’t as bad in the regular season as their record indicated, and their record wasn’t that bad to begin with. The Kings ended the season with 40 wins and 95 points, which is a decent total. Its a point total, however, that would have left them outside the playoffs in the Western Conference in the last two seasons.
What the Kings did have going for them is that they were a phenomenal possession team during the regular season, particularly after hiring Darryl Sutter as coach and trading for Jeff Carter. Cam Charron has done the legwork in breaking up their possession statistics for those periods of time using their Fenwick Tied percentage, which measures what percentage a team controls all unblocked shot attempts at even-strength with the score tied. The Kings went from controlling 50.2% prior to Sutter, to 54.9% after hiring Sutter but before trading for Carter, to 61.2% after acquiring Carter. Overall, the Kings were third in the NHL in Fenwick Tied, far better than their record would indicate.
The Kings didn’t get into the playoffs just on the strength of Jonathan Quick’s goaltending, though that was essential as well, but they got in by controlling puck possession and outshooting their opponents. The Kings were outshot just 26 times during the regular season, with only Pittsburgh and Chicago getting outshot fewer times.
The question remains, however: if the Kings were so good at outplaying their opponents, why did they end up as the 8th seed in the West?
It looks like the answer is that they just weren’t clutch enough. The Kings had one of the worst records in the NHL in games decided by one-goal, including overtime and shootouts. They were 17-14-15 in one-goal games, a winning percentage of just .370, fourth worst in the league ahead of just Columbus, Carolina, and Montreal. Was this an indication of being a bad hockey team or an indication of how well they would perform in one-goal games in the future? Not in the slightest.
As Ecclesiastes 9:11 says, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong…but time and chance happen to them all.” Hockey games can be decided by just one bounce of the puck, particularly in games decided by just one goal: over the course of the season, those bounces usually even out for a team and they’ll get good breaks and bad breaks in about equal proportion. The best a team can usually hope for is to control puck possession, get more shots than the other team, and hope that fortune favours them. For the Kings during the regular season, the puck bounced the wrong way more often than not.
For an illustration of how little a team’s winning percentage in one-goal games is indicative of a team’s skill, take a look at who led the league in that statistic: the Tampa Bay Lightning. The same Tampa Bay Lightning that had a minus-46 goal differential and missed the playoffs by 8 points.
In the small sample size of the playoffs, the Kings are batting 1.000 in one-goal games, winning all 6 games that have been decided by that margin. They continue to control puck possession, continue to outshoot their opponents, and continue to get stellar goaltending from Jonathan Quick, but now they’re getting the bounces as well.