In the month since I prematurely buried the Los Angeles Kings, the’ve battled back from a 3-0 deficit against the San Jose Sharks and staved off elimination Wednesday night to pull even with the Anaheim Ducks. Now we have a winner-take-all Game 7 Friday night, for the right to face the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
According to the most commonly cited advanced stat, the Kings shouldn’t have had things so hard. As I’ve previously written, they finished first in the NHL during the regular season in score-close Fenwick percentage, a measurement of how much a team controls possession of the puck. The consensus of hockey analysts is that dominating possession is the most predictive single component of a team’s performance, since the rate at which the puck finds the net once a shot is taken can be subject to wild fluctuations due to random chance.
In the Kings’ defense, their first-round opponents, the Sharks, ranked third in the NHL in Fenwick close during the regular season, making it more likely the two teams would have to battle deep into a series. (The Sharks also had home-ice advantage in the series) But Los Angeles’ matchup with the Ducks is another case entirely. During the regular season, Anaheim ranked just 16th out of the 30 NHL teams in Fenwick close, relying more on high shooting and save percentages — metrics that statisticians traditionally attribute more to luck, even over the sample of an entire season — than to constant puck-possession.
So far in this clash of hockey cultures, things have largely played out according to form. During 5-on-5 situations with the score close (the same conditions measured by Fenwick close), the Kings have dominated possession. But Fenwick close by itself ignores other aspects of the game, such as special teams (where the Ducks have had a slight advantage) and, even more important, shooting percentage. In the series so far, Anaheim is converting shots into goals at a rate 1.1 percentage points higher than LA.
Looking at possession metrics alone would have suggested a mismatch before the series, but the betting lines had the Kings as only a slim favorite after taking into account the Ducks’ home-ice advantage. This implies that the market was building in some expectation that the teams’ differences in shooting percentage during the regular season (Anaheim ranked first in the NHL; Los Angeles ranked 28th) could be counted upon to continue in a head-to-head matchup.
There’s a good amount of evidence that, across the NHL as a whole, team shooting and save percentages have a strong tendency to regress toward the overall league average. But in the case of outliers like the Ducks and Kings, there’s probably something real going on that makes looking at Fenwick close by itself an insufficient gauge of relative team strength.
Anything can happen on the ice in a Game 7, and Friday night’s outcome is hardly a referendum on either playing style, but the Kings-Ducks finale will be the culmination of an interesting contrast in hockey philosophies that proves the game is still more complicated than we’d sometimes like to believe.