Conference Finals: Second Helping

JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Only three conference finals games have been played, but a few things are writ large. After the Canadiens lost their starting goaltender, the Rangers are poised to sweep, and Chicago is still not playing great, but winning anyway.

Note: All advanced statistics used are from ExtraSkater.com.

Canadiens-Rangers

The Canadiens do not have the most mobile defensive corps, which puts pressure on their forwards to play consistent 200-foot hockey and maintain perfect defensive coverage at all times. In Game 2’s broadcast, color commentator Eddie Olczyk pointed this out after the Rick Nash goal, observing that Montreal was conceding the zone entry because they did not want to be caught flat-footed against the Rangers’ forwards’ speed. But when the Canadiens do recede, they allow a very skilled New York team to carve them up with their passing, or establish all-important territorial advantage.

One method for Montreal’s defense to combat this is to be more aggressive about challenging the Rangers on their zone entries. However, confronting the attacker at the blue line will require puck support from Montreal’s forwards as a safety valve, so that if the Rangers eschew the one-on-one encounter, the Canadiens will have layers, allowing them to squeeze the puck-carrier to the perimeter. If the Canadiens succeed on their side of the ice, it will give them a much better chance to win.

On the other side of the ice, Montreal’s forwards have not been able to strike off the rush like they did in their previous two series against Boston and Tampa Bay. The turnovers have not been there for the quick counterattack, and the Rangers have done a very good job at eliminating the Canadiens’ stretch pass. Ironically, New York has been the team employing the push-the-pace pass successfully, exploiting the skating of the Canadiens’ defensemen.

New York has shown strong gap control in their defensive zone. When Montreal has successfully transitioned with speed through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, the Rangers have done a very good job of forcing them to the outside, and then efficiently removing the passing and shooting lanes. In the first two rounds, Montreal showed an ability to find the seam pass on their zone entry, and then swing the puck from strong side to weak side. Much to Montreal’s chagrin, the Rangers have been restrictive when protecting the middle of the ice, and it has been more difficult for the Canadiens to make that cross-ice pass.

 In addition to taking away Montreal’s stretch pass, the Rangers are beating the Canadiens by usurping some of their other ingredients for success even when New York loses the Fenwick Close battle like they did in Game 2. New York exploited Montreal in the transition game (Nash goal), and forced turnovers in the neutral zone and defensive zone (McDonagh goal). Additionally, Henrik Lundqvist has been a bastion between the pipes – much like Carey Price was in the Canadiens’ first two series.

The Rangers even had success on the power play! New York lost the puck possession game by a significant margin in the second game of the series, but they received a little luck, took advantage of special teams, and scored when they had their chances. Sound familiar? Montreal executed this blueprint in their first two rounds.

The Rangers have done a very good job in their own zone: The Blueshirts’ skaters recognize where the lanes are for the outlet and how Montreal’s defensive composition dictates the release points. The Rangers have been cleanly and effectively exiting the zone, and Montreal has struggled to handle that.

Blackhawks-Kings

There is a controversy that deserves discussion regarding the Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Duncan Keith, and it needs to be addressed before the inevitable backlash, assuming Keith wins the Norris Trophy.

In the playoffs, Keith has been less than stellar by his standards. To wit, in Tom Awad’s updated Hockey Prospectus’ playoff player rankings, four Blackhawks were named as Conn Smythe candidates, and Keith was not one of them. (Patrick Kane was not either, and he has been better in the playoffs than Keith, so that should illuminate how underwhelming Keith has been. Again, by his standards.)

Keith is a Norris Trophy finalist and the favorite to win, and if Intelligent Hockey had a vote, he would likely get it. With Keith’s dip in play this postseason, and some other elite defensemen outplaying him, it draws attention to the deployment issue with him. Critics postulate why Keith should win the award for Best Defenseman in the Regular Season if he gets softer competition and favorable deployment versus some of his counterparts?

The recipients of Chicago’s hardest assignments are Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, utilized as the shutdown pair against opponents’ top players. These two do a fantastic job suffocating the best competition, while Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook destroy opponents’ second-level forwards.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus wrote an article recently detailing how the Blackhawks utilize advanced statistics. The Blackhawks have their own sophisticated tracking system, which helps them as an organization gain an edge. Through the article, we know that coach Joel Quenneville is very cognizant of quality of competition, deployment, and who is tilting the ice.

So why is it held against Duncan Keith that he is not utilized against the toughest quality of competition? Quenneville is afforded the luxury of blanketing another team’s top forwards with the defensive pair that is not Chicago’s most dynamic from a scoring aspect (Hjalmarsson and Oduya), allowing offensive fulcrums like Keith and Seabrook to be matched against lesser competition, providing a greater chance for an offensive impact.

Everyone in the hockey community loves to praise Boston’s Zdeno Chara because he has a sophisticated offensive arsenal and the ability to tilt the ice, but also because of his deployment and quality of competition. But Chara also is a product of how his coach, Claude Julien, uses him. Like Chicago, Boston is a very analytics-friendly organization, and Julien sees it in his team’s best interest that Chara be pitted in the toughest situations in the defensive zone and competition-wise. So a lot of people hold it against Keith that Hjalmarsson and Oduya get the difficult deployment and quality of competition when this is not Keith’s decision — in reality, it is just smart allocation of an asset.

Moreover, when the Blackhawks have a one-goal lead in the final few minutes of a game, Keith gets that valuable ice time to protect the lead and seal it. Or if the Blackhawks are trailing by a goal and need a game-tying marker, Keith has shown that he can be that difference-maker. In close games at five on five during the regular season, Keith had a Relative Fenwick of + 2.0 percent. His Shots For Relative was +1.6 in that setting as well. In games where Chicago held a one-goal lead at five on five, his Relative Fenwick was +3.8 percent. He can shut down opponents’ best players. He can slant the ice and jolt the attack. Offensively and defensively, he is a force.

This applies to deployment too. Keith gets advantageous zone starts, but that is because he is a dazzling playmaker and possesses a strong shot from the blue line — placing him in the offensive zone as much as possible makes sense. To make a cross-sport analogy, Quenneville’s minute managing in accordance with the situation is equivalent to the NBA’s Greg Popovich’s maneuvering of the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich manages his big three’s minutes very deliberately. He makes a conscious decision to employ them in a way that maximizes their value to the team, and the Spurs have a ton of success with it.

Quenneville can afford to have two defensemen apart from his top-two pair take the brutal minutes. Even though Keith has not been at his best these days — in five-on-five close game situations during the playoffs, he has a Relative Fenwick of -5.6 percent and when adjusted to solely five on five his Relative Fenwick is -4.3 percent — it seems capricious and foolish to hold this against him.

In the regular season, Keith was unbelievable, consistently dominant in his shifts for the entire stretch. Often the defenseman with the best offensive numbers wins, so Keith’s chances are still good. And if he does win, it will be warranted.

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