The Vancouver Canucks cruised into the postseason with the best regular season record. They had great offense, solid defense, wonderful goaltending, and home ice advantage. Added to all this was plenty of experience: Alain Vigneault had steered them to several series wins in his tenure, and in 2011, they'd made it all the way to the Final.
The Kings, on the other hand, finished 29th overall in scoring, lost their final two games, and barely squeaked into the playoffs. To top it all off, the young team hadn't advanced to the second round in over a decade.
It was only natural that the Canucks were the heavy favorites. Knocking the best team in the league out in the first round? Who would've dreamed it, right?
As it turned out, a few did. Aside from loyal fans, the people who gave the Kings a good shot at an upset generally fell into two groups:
- Advanced stat followers
- Barry Melrose
The evidence is clear. If you want to improve your playoff predictions, you have two choices: start growing a mullet, or take a look at the underlying numbers.
Let's take a look back at some of the series previews that got it right.
- Fear the Fin - Western Conference Playoff Predictions
- Eric T. of Broad Street Hockey - "Who is Playing Well Down the Stretch?"
- Thomas Drance of Canucks Army - Round 1 Preview
- Driving Play (with Cam Charron of CA as guest) - Canucks-Kings Preview Podcast
So, what did they pick up on? What did others miss?
1. By the end of the season, the Kings had become an excellent possession team.
Corsi and Fenwick (a team's shot attempts at even strength) are ways to estimate how much time a team spends in the offensive zone on the attack. Zone time/possession correlates with scoring chances; the more you can get, the better. Having the puck more often than your opponent reduces pressure on the goalie and the defense.
Sutter's arrival and the Carter-Johnson trade ushered in improvements in the Kings' puck possession game. They'd begun the year as a middle of the pack team. By the end of the season, the Kings ranked among the best in the league in terms of controlling the play. No team was hotter than LA after the trade deadline.
These were all positive signs when facing another top possession club in Vancouver. In fact, the Kings were the better possession team over the course of the season.
2. Scoring had rebounded to normal levels
The Kings had around an 8% team shooting percentage at even strength for the past several seasons (which is also the league average). This season, it hovered between 5-6%. Goal scoring woes continued for most of the year, but shooting percentages tend toward the mean. It was more likely to rebound than continue.
Last year the New Jersey Devils were the club that suffered from an unusually low conversion rate during the first part of the season, only to bounce back later on (let's face it, guys as skilled as Kovalchuk don't suddenly lose all their goal-scoring ability overnight). The Kings leaned on a few forwards with low or unestablished shooting skill over the course of the season (Lewis, Richardson, Nolan), but Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll all have a proven track record as 20+ goal-scorers, and their production suffered too.
However, after the Carter-Johnson swap, the team began to click again. Carter helped strengthen the second line, relieving pressure overall; the top line went on a tear; the third line was bolstered by Stoll and Penner; and scoring from the blueline increased along with it. The Kings not only had the puck more often, they were averaging 3 goals per game down the stretch. They finished the season going 13-5-3.
A lot of talking heads fixated on their previous scoring woes, and missed that things were back to normal. If they'd dug a little deeper, no one should have been surprised.
Possession stats are a better predictor of success than a team's regular season winning percentage. However, we should note that this is no guarantee of victory in a brief series. Almost anything can happen in a 4 to 7 game stretch, even if a team dominates o-zone time and scoring chances (like running into a Vezina-caliber goalie, for example). Both Vancouver and Los Angeles boasted very strong numbers over the course of the season, and were excellent at controlling the play. Both had outstanding goaltenders. There was by no means a clear-cut favorite.
Beyond guessing the winners, this analysis did pick up on the fact that the Kings were a much stronger matchup for the Canucks than their win-loss record indicated. That proved to be spot-on. Alain Vigneault said this before the series began, but few who reported his words believed it. Does it surprise you that the Canucks and Kings have their own in-house stat trackers? It shouldn't.
So as the postseason rolls on, check out some of the great stat work going on out there. It's not just a lot of fun -- it might help you see what others miss.