Kings vs Blues Series Preview - Line Matching and Possession Breakdown

The Blues and Kings played 4 times in their season series. The Kings won 3 and outscored them 8-3 (plus a shootout win "goal"). Beneath the surface though each game introduced a new element to the matchup.

The first game was played early in the season when both Terry Murray and Davis Payne were at the helm (Doughty was also out with an injury), Game 2 was the Kings introduction to Ken Hitchcock, Game 3 the Blues were introduced to Darryl Sutter and in Game 4 yet another new look as the Kings had since exchanged Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter.

It is then difficult to come to any grand revelations by looking at the regular season overall results, so we'll also take a closer look at their last two games. These are most indicative of what we can expect in the upcoming series (due to coaching changes and trades).

One thing is very interesting though when looking at the overall season series totals, the two teams played each other to an exact draw in Corsi %.

Here's the chart:

  • The Kings had a difficult time containing Backes (L1). In fact, he beat Kopitar head-to-head to the tune of 59%, which is very uncharacteristic for Kopitar who is one of the better possession players in the NHL.
  • Richards did well in the possession battle against the Blues. This is also uncharacteristic, as Richards really struggled in this area all year. He was matched up mainly against Berglund (L2) (but not by much) and edged him head-to-head, 52%.
  • The bottom 6 washed each other out. The King's L3 edged the Blues L3 (Arnott). The Blue's L4 (Nichol) out produced the King's 4th.
  • The King's 4th line was a revelation in the series against the Canucks. Can they keep this up against the Blues who probably have the greatest amount of forward depth in the NHL? More on this later.

Next, let's take a look at how Corsi broke down on a game to game basis:

  • Game 1 was a blow out as the Kings won that one 5-0, so one should keep score effects in mind. All other games were one goal games.
  • The only games where either team had a significant edge in possession were the last two. Both teams were able to take advantage of home ice and presumably exploit more favorable matchups. This is were things get interesting. These last two games could be a preview of what we might expect from each coach with regard to line matching.

Now let's take a closer look at matchups using our very special and fancy Line Matching Heat Maps.

First, this one is how the matchups broke down over all 4 games:

  • The only real hard match we see is Kopitar and the defensive 1st pair vs Backes. Every other matchup ended up being relatively balanced.

Next is Game 3 where St. Louis was at home and Hitchcock was able to control the matchups:

  • This game was dominated by the Blues (as we can see from the chart above, they won the Corsi battle 58%-42%). It was the game at the start of the "Grammy" trip and the Kings were shutout 1-0 and only managed 21 shots on goal.
  • We can see that Hitchcock got Backes and Pietrangelo out against Kopitar the vast majority of the time. They were effective in shutting down Kopitar whose Corsi was a paltry 38% for the game.
  • The 2nd and 3rd lines played pretty balanced minutes against one another.
  • The 4th lines were hard matched against each other.

Now, the 4th game of the series played at Staples:

  • Sutter did not shy away from matching Kopitar against Backes and the line bounced back with a 55% Corsi rate. A reassuring note for Kings fans as they head into this series.
  • We can see a real difference in 2nd line usage. Sutter chose to match the Richards line against the Blues 1st and 2nd with almost no time against the 3rd. This is in contrast to what Hitchcock tried to do in St. Louis. So this is something to look out for.
  • The Kings tried to divert more of Kopitar's minutes to easier matchups at home and they made up for it by giving Richards slightly harder minutes. If the Kopitar line can play to the level they did in Game 4 of the season series, not to mention the way they did down the stretch in general, that will go a long way toward the Kings being able to steal home ice away from the Blues.
  • Another really interesting insight into these matchups is how the Kings 4th line was deployed. In St. Louis, as we observed, they were hard matched against the Blues 4th line. In LA though, Sutter chose to use them mainly against the Berglund line, while diverting some of Richards time to the 4th (supposedly to take a little bit of the load off).
  • Keep an eye on how the King's L4 performs in the first two games against the Nichol line. If they do well then Sutter won't hesitate to use this strategy again. A strategy that would be key in A) allowing Kopitar some easier matchups to exploit and B) taking some of the heavy lifting off of the Richards' line shoulders.

So in summary, here are the keys to the series:

  • The Kopitar line needs to be very strong in St. Louis. Expect Hitchcock to strand them on Backes Island. If they can outplay them, that will be a huge boon for the Kings. You know that old, tired playoff adage of your best players needing to be your best players? Well it's never going to be more true for the Kings than in the first two games in St. Louis.
  • The Stoll line needs to be consistent. This line needs to continue their success from Game 5 and take that into St. Louis. Especially watch for how they fair against the Berglund line. Even playing them to a draw would go a long way toward taking some of the pressure off of the Richards line. It is also a matchup Hitchcock may seem to be thinking he can somewhat exploit.
  • The 4th line is going to be a huge factor. If they can play the way they did against the Canucks, the Kings will be extremely difficult to beat. Can they set the tone in St. Louis and carry that into LA? That would make Sutter's job a lot easier and take a lot of pressure off every other forward in what should be a pressure packed series.

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