Lethbridge: Kings’ strong defence makes up for lacking powerplay in postseason

(Cassie Storring/CM)

By: Stephen Lethbridge
@stephenleth

Perhaps the biggest surprise so far in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs has been the utterly dominant play of the Los Angeles Kings. Lead by captain Dustin Brown and backstopped by ace netminder Jonathon Quick, the team has earned a berth in the Stanley Cup final, their first since 1993.

So far in the playoffs, the Kings have arguably been the best team in the NHL. They’ve amassed a record of 12-2, knocking off the first, second and third seeds in the Western conference throughout the process – the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, and Phoenix Coyotes. Not only that, but they’ve set a new NHL record by going 8-0 on the road en route to the Cup final.

The Kings have been able to accomplish all of this with an abysmal powerplay. The team is worst among the three teams remaining in the playoffs on the man advantage, operating at just 8.1 per cent right now.

Meanwhile, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are at fourth and fifth respectively, with powerplay percentages of 19.1 per cent and 18 per cent. Out of the five teams at the bottom of the NHL’s powerplay rankings in the playoffs so far, the Kings are one of two teams with a record above .500, the other being Nashville who were 5-5-1. The fact that the Kings have managed to play so well while not producing on the powerplay questions the importance of powerplay success in the playoffs.

The Kings have something common with last year’s Stanley Cup winners, the Boston Bruins: both teams had little luck on the man advantage.

Perhaps the story of the Bruins run to the Stanley Cup was their powerplay. The Bruins were just 11.4 per cent last year while up a man in the playoffs, the worst of any team to get past the first round. Deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle seemed to bear the brunt of the criticism for this shortcoming. Also, they scored just four times on the powerplay in the final vs. Vancouver. Despite this, the team was still able to capture the Stanley Cup.

The similarities between the Bruins and the Kings don’t end there. Perhaps the biggest reason the Bruins won, and one of the clearest comparisons between them and the Kings, is their goaltender.

Tim Thomas was unbelievable throughout the post-season, and was eventually named playoff MVP. He posted a .940 save percentage, along with four shutouts and a 1.98 goals against average.

While Jonathon Quick’s numbers this year are actually better than Thomas’, there are definite similarities between the two. Both goaltenders are American, and both utilize unorthodox goaltending styles that has befuddled their opponents. Also, Boston lead the NHL in goals against per game in the playoffs last year, a stat that LA has owned in this year’s post season.

Beyond the parallels in net, both teams exhibited strong play while down a man. Dustin Brown has been lethal for the Kings on the penalty kill so far in the playoffs. He has five short-handed points through three rounds, including two goals. His partner on the PK, Anze Kopitar, has been almost as good. Four of his 15 points have come with a Kings’ player in the penalty box.

One of the keys to Boston’s success last year was their ability to create offense while down a man, as well. We saw the team score three times on the penalty kill in the Cup final, and throughout the playoffs, we saw players like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand score short-handed. Both teams were able to achieve this by pressuring the other teams while on the man disadvantage and creating turnovers.

The Bruins broke an 11-year-old streak last year when they won the Stanley Cup. No team since the Dallas Stars in 1999 had won the Stanley Cup with a powerplay percentage below 15 per cent.

In that span, four teams; the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, all operated at over 20 per cent efficiency on the man advantage. While New Jersey and the Rangers are still above 15 per cent this year, the 2011 Bruins and the Kings this year may signal a change in the way teams win championships in the NHL.

While it is true that Bruins weren’t able to get their powerplay going, nor have the Kings been able to so far, both teams had success in the playoffs based on outstanding defensive play, and the ability to create chances while short-handed. The 2010 Bruins didn’t need to get scoring from their powerplay, and the Kings don’t seem to need it this year.

Getting to the Stanley Cup final in just 14 games, the Los Angeles Kings have to be considered the cup favourites at this point. The teams that they have beaten en route to the Cup final have been very good teams. The Canucks entered the post-season coming off their second straight President’s Trophy win, the Blues were the best defensive team in the NHL this past season, and the Coyotes’ Mike Smith was playing the best hockey of his career until the team’s ouster on Tuesday night.

The Kings have been able to overcome the offensive woes they experienced coming into the playoffs, and have improved the already stellar defensive play they exhibited in 82 games this past season. They’ve gotten to the  final despite absolutely subpar play on the powerplay.

If the Kings are able to win their first ever franchise Stanley Cup, it may signal the start of a trend in the NHL, with teams focusing on suring up their defense and penalty kill, instead of trying to solidify their powerplay.

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