Kings Sharks Playoff Preview: Special Teams
Hello readers! We here at Jewels from the Crown have examined the upcoming Kings-Sharks series from the perspective of zone entries and even strength matchups. Both posts look at recent Kings-Sharks games to see how the teams have matched up in practice. This technique works well for analyzing 5v5 play but because of sample size limitations it is much less applicable to special teams, the subject of this post.
It might be interesting to know that the Sharks power play sputtered out against the Kings last series (only 40.8 shots/60 and 63.48 Fenwicks/60, both very bad numbers) but produced a ton of shot attempts against the Kings this regular season, though not a huge number of actual shots (48.64 shots/60 and 92.66 Fenwicks/60). But these numbers are over a small sample and therefore subject to a great deal of random variation (39.7 and 25.9 minutes, respectively) and are more likely to misinform than to illuminate. So I'll be looking at how the Kings and Sharks special teams have performed generally and try to figure out who has the advantage from that.
2013-14 marks the fifth consecutive year the Sharks have led the league in shots/60 at 5v4, which is an incredible accomplishment. Fenwicks/60 is an even better predictor of power play performance and they lead the league in that, too. Joe Thornton is probably the premier 5v4 player in the NHL, maybe excepting Alexander Ovechkin. The Sharks' PP% is average because they have a terrible shooting percentage (26th in the NHL), but that's bad luck. San Jose has been a league average shooting team 5v4 over the past several years, and if one assumes that is their true talent, this is an extremely good power play.
The Kings have also suffered from bad shooting luck this season (27th in the NHL at 9.4%), but instead of making a great power play seem average, that misfortune has made an average power play seem awful. The Kings do a perfectly respectable job producing shots (12th) and Fenwicks (11th), so it's reasonable to expect a decent performance from the power play going forward.
Of note, the Kings' power play has been better since the trade deadline (57.17 shots/60 and 82.5 Fenwicks/60 in 101.8 minutes, which would put them at 5th and 3rd in the league, respectively). I hate to cut apart the sample size like that, but since the Kings did acquire an important 5v4 weapon in Marian Gaborik, I think some of that improvement is probably real. LA's power play is, at the very least, not a weakness.
Penalty killing is a bit tricky to assess. The rate of Fenwicks or Corsis allowed has very little predicative value. Shot attempts are somewhat helpful, but because of the impact of goaltending talent (and possibly because of PK systems influencing shot quality), actual PK performance is the best predictor.
Penalty killing has historically been a major weakness for San Jose, but over the past two years the Sharks have fixed that. The Sharks gave up goals and shots at the 7th and 4th lowest rates in the NHL, respectively. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is probably their most important 4v5 player but Jason Demers also merits a mention, as the Sharks have allowed extremely low rates of both shots and goals with him killing penalties.
The Kings, meanwhile, have been pretty close to average, ranking 15th and 19th in goals and shots against. That's down from 2012-13 (10th and 8th ) and 2011-12 (4th and 13th). It's hard to tell what caused this downturn; the Kings have mostly been deploying the same players on the PK in the same ways over the past three years. One difference is Robyn Regehr, who has not been a particularly effective penalty killer. The Kings give up a higher rate of shots with Regehr killing penalties than any other defenseman, which should not be surprising because Regehr also struggled on the penalty kill in Buffalo. Then again, Regehr is replacing Rob Scuderi, who was not great at PK shot prevention either. Another factor is the possible decline of veteran penalty killers Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, both of whom are allowing more shots and goals at 4v5 than they have in the past.
Both teams draw a ton of penalties, but San Jose takes very few, while Los Angeles takes almost as many as it draws. San Jose has spent 112 more minutes on the PP than the PK, LA just 3. Since San Jose has achieved similar results in recent years, this probably isn't just randomness.
Given that San Jose very likely has the superior power play and penalty kill and generates a much better penalty differential, it's clear San Jose has the edge on special teams. Fear the Fin, in an excellent preview post, wrote that "if this series is decided on special teams, the Sharks will win it." This should not be taken literally; special teams, like everything else in hockey, abounds with variance. Indeed, San Jose had superior special teams on paper last year, too, but LA wound up scoring five power play goals to San Jose's four.
The most probable outcome, however, is that San Jose's power play and penalty kill both perform better than LA's. The Kings' significant even strength advantage should more than make up for this - remember that 5v5 is the most important game state because it is more common. And the more common it is in this series, the better LA's chances will get.