Of the 16 teams to qualify for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, none were more offensively inept in the regular season than the Los Angeles Kings. L.A. averaged 2.42 goals per game over the course of the year, good for 26th in the NHL and one spot back of the incessantly ineffectual Edmonton Oilers.
So to have Los Angeles—a team that has scored 15 goals in its last three games—lead the NHL postseason with 3.39 goals per game is a major shock.
It represents a 40 percent increase in offence, and has occurred against a trio of formidable opponents: San Jose, Anaheim and now Chicago.
What has happened?
From one perspective, the offensive outburst is evenly distributed between even strength and the man advantage, with the Kings’ goal output increasing by about 0.38 goals per game in both situations.
Of course, every team spends a lot more time at five-on-five than on the power play, so the reality is that the lion’s share of the jump is coming on special teams:
|Los Angeles Kings' goals per game|
|Season||Even strength||Power play|
Let’s start with the situation that takes up the bulk of minutes in every NHL game: even strength.
The first point to determine is what is driving the increase in goals. There are two ways a team can improve its goal totals—either by taking more shots or scoring on more of the shots that it takes. Which is the case in L.A.?
|Los Angeles Kings' even strength shots and goals|
The Kings’ shot totals have actually declined in the playoffs, which makes sense—they’re consistently playing better opponents than they faced during the regular season.
Thus far in the postseason, they've attempted fewer shots in an average hour (Corsi/60) and gotten a smaller percentage of the shots they do attempt on net (Shots/60). That hasn’t hurt Los Angeles, though, because the Kings have seen a big spike in shooting percentage, from 6.7 percent up to 8.7 percent.
Is that something the team can sustain? What does the Kings’ recent past suggest?
The following chart shows the Kings’ shots and goals totals since 2011-12, the season which culminated in the franchise’s first Stanley Cup victory:
|Los Angeles Kings' long-term shooting percentage|
Given the Kings’ history under head coach Darryl Sutter, there is good reason to believe that the club isn’t as good at converting shots into goals as the NHL norm. Most teams score on about 8.0 percent of their shots.
This year’s postseason represents a shooting percentage high point for the team, and there is ample evidence that—at least to some degree—it is an aberration.
Trevor Lewis, for example, has scored 11 percent of the team’s playoff goals. His shooting percentage is more than triple what it was during the season. The Los Angeles defence, which has just a hair under 20 percent of the team’s total scoring, is also converting shots to goals at nearly double the rate it did during the year.
But as much as there is an element of “getting the bounces” to the Kings’ offensive production, there is also an X-factor available to this Los Angeles team that just wasn’t there in previous years: Marian Gaborik.
With seven even-strength goals in the playoffs, Gaborik has been the club’s offensive leader in that discipline. He has scored 18.9 percent of the team’s total even-strength goals, and while his playoff shooting percentage (17.5 percent) is currently well above his career average, he is an exceptional finisher—one of the best in the NHL.
A player like Gaborik can make a massive difference, especially on a team like L.A. that struggles to put away its chances.
It's a difference that linemate Anze Kopitar noted to the National Post's Cam Cole:
It’s certainly a change since my time being here, we’ve never really had a No. 1 line, left-shot, left winger. He’s a constant threat with his shooting ability and his scoring ability," Kopitar said. "Giving the puck to him in the slot is always a good option.
Another player worth mentioning is Tyler Toffoli (15.0 percent playoff shooting percentage at even strength). Toffoli has six even-strength goals, just one fewer than Gaborik, and his minor league history suggests he has above-average finishing talent.
In the AHL, for example, Toffoli was a 18.0 percent career shooter, which is a remarkable figure.
Between them, Gaborik and Toffoli have scored more than one-third of L.A.’s even-strength goals.
While both are running white-hot at the moment, they provide an element of finishing ability the Kings’ haven’t always had and offer reason to believe that when the Kings’ shooting percentage dips, it won’t fall as far as it has in past seasons.
What about the power play?
As with the situation at even strength, shooting percentage is driving the vast majority of the goal increase on the man advantage. The Kings were 9.9 percent shooters on the power play during the regular season. That figure has doubled to 19.8 percent in the playoffs.
To some degree, we can attribute the increase to personnel changes—notably the addition of Gaborik and the elevation of Alec Martinez ahead of Slava Voynov in total power-play ice time.
To a much larger degree, however, the Kings have been incredibly fortunate.
The case of Jeff Carter, who has provided 44.4 percent of the first unit’s goals, is illustrative. During the regular season, nearly two-thirds of Carter’s goals came off shots he took on net. In the playoffs, only one-quarter of his scoring has come in that manner:
It’s wrong to say that Carter’s tips and bounces are pure luck. After all, he worked hard to get to the front of the net and redirect those pucks, or make a cross-crease pass that banked in off an opponent’s skate.
However, it’s also wrong to attribute those entirely to his innate ability because, while Carter had to put himself in a position to have success, that success also required catching a break.
This goal against San Jose is a good example:
Carter made a strong play here, driving to the net and then trying to get the puck out front. He was rewarded in a big way when the puck banked into the net off the foot of Sharks defenceman Brad Stuart.
That happens sometimes, but it’s rare—it didn’t happen on even one of Carter’s regular-season power-play markers.
Across the whole of the team, we’re only talking about 16 power-play goals. It doesn’t take long for those weird bounces and deflections to add up, though, as they clearly have in the case of Carter.
The Kings have to a certain degree been fortunate to get this far—as virtually all teams that advance deep in the playoffs must be. They played seven-game series in each of the first two rounds and needed incredible offensive production to advance, something that they didn’t get during the regular season.
That might represent a ray of light in a very dark situation for Chicago.
The Kings' recent offensive outburst has had a lot of causes—one of which has been the implosion of goaltender Corey Crawford—but history suggests that the team is scoring goals at a rate it can’t sustain.
It may be too late for the Blackhawks—down 3-1 in their third-round series—but if so, it should at least be encouraging for whoever advances in the East.
With that said, there is good news here for Los Angeles, too. This is a better team than the one we saw in the regular season—possibly even a better team than the one that won it all in 2012. The club is leaning on weapons that it just didn’t have in previous years, and those individual players are providing the kind of offensive punch the Kings have won without in the past.
That extra firepower makes an already very good Los Angeles team better still and improves its chances of winning a second Stanley Cup.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report; follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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