Ilya Kovalchuk in the Stanley Cup Final has recorded a single goal and a single point. Far on us to criticize the Russian superstar from shying away in big moments—while his season may come to an end tonight, he’s had a hell of a run—tied with Anze Kopitar in playoff points while playing hurt.
Kovalchuk went from being one of the game’s villains to one of its heroes. It’s amazing what one single playoff run can do. Just a couple of years removed from his initial contract with the Devils nullified for salary cap circumvention, Kovalchuk has done all we’ve asked him to. He’s played big minutes through pain, he’s come up in big moments, and he’s won his team playoff series’. After being criticized when he was an Atlanta Thrasher, Kovalchuk worked on his two-way game, and became a third of one of the best lines in hockey to watch.
After 7 goals and 11 assists in the first three rounds, Kovalchuk has become shut down by the Los Angeles Kings, who may have become hockey’s stingiest defensive club. After all, the team has allowed just 1.5 goals per game in the playoffs and were second in the regular season behind St. Louis at 2.07. Keep in mind that wasn’t a squad that really woke up until halfway through the year.
So what have the Kings done differently? What did Los Angeles do to Ilya Kovalchuk that caused him to drop from .41 goals per game in the first three rounds to .25 in the Final? It isn’t something as simple as shooting percentage: Kovalchuk connected on 12.1% of his shots in the first three rounds, a pretty sustainable average, and has only since dipped to 11.1% in the second round.
What’s really noticeable is how many shots Kovalchuk has been limited to. He had 58 in the first three rounds and just 9 in the Stanley Cup Finals so far. Per 15 minutes of overall ice time, Kovalchuk has dipped from 2.2 shots per 15 minutes to 1.5.
So this is a legitimate drop in performance. It could be that all the ice time and injuries are catching up to Kovalchuk and he isn’t used to playing this much hockey, but let’s just assume that it hasn’t. Have the Kings attacked him differently?
Florida and the New York Rangers tried to get their top defensive pairing out against Kovalchuk as much as possible, and they managed. Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Weaver spent a lot of time against Kovalchuk, with Kevin Dineen managing to get them out for nearly 63% of Kovalchuk’s minutes. The Rangers and John Tortorella were just about as successful. Kovalchuk played the most minutes against Dan Girardi or Ryan McDonaugh in Games 2, 3, 5 and 6 of that series. Overall, the defenceman matched up against Kovalchuk the most spent, again, 62% of his time against the Russian star.
Los Angeles has drawn completely away from a hard match. Kovalchuk has seen looks against Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, and never seeing half of his minutes against the same guy. It appears that the Kings have strayed away from line matching, worrying about their own game instead of trying to shut down Kovalchuk.
In fact, in the first three rounds, Kovalchuk played 63% of his minutes against the player that opposed him the most. IN the finals, that number is down to 51%.
Funny how that works. When you think about defence exclusively, all you do is end up playing defence. When you worry about controlling the play like the Kings do, you end up getting to play more on offence. Since players go out on the ice trying to both a) score and b) prevent goals, the best defence really is a good offence. Trying to stick to a hard match, or play certain players exclusively against New Jersey’s top line, and all you will do is play defence without regard for what happens at the other end.