Why the Golden Knights can beat the Kings in Round 1
It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely not a reach.
As we prepare for the Vegas Golden Knights to take on the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (or ‘yoffs, as we like to call it), it’s time to delve deep into the numbers to see just what advantages the Knights do (and don’t) have in what will likely be a war of a series against their Pacific Division rival.
The Kings, despite having somewhat of an up-and-down season, do indeed pose as a formidable opponent for the Golden Knights in Round 1. After all, Los Angeles finished the season just two points shy of the century mark and split their four-game regular season series against Vegas with a 2-1-1 record.
Some may label them as being “just a wild card team,” but the Kings are not an opponent that the Golden Knights can underestimate.
Luckily, the Kings are far from perfect. Just as any team does, Los Angeles has its fair share of weaknesses that can be exposed and exploited. Whether the Golden Knights take advantage of those weaknesses remains to be seen, but they’re there, and we’re doing our best to help illustrate what those weaknesses are.
Let’s begin with one of the issues that plagued the Kings against Vegas in the first half of the season.
Los Angeles is highly dependent on quality goaltending
It’s no secret that Jonathan Quick is one of just several truly elite goaltenders in the NHL. The 32-year-old backstop is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a two-time Vezina nominee and has been voted to play in the NHL All-Star Game three times in what is likely to be a Hall of Fame career. Without a doubt, much of the Kings’ success over the last decade or so can largely be attributed to the consistently excellent play of Quick.
Quick’s 2017-18 season has been especially impressive, as he’s managed a .921 save percentage and a 2.40 goals against average while appearing in 64 games. Granted, he only won a little over half of his starts, but Quick, as always, was one of the primary forces responsible for the Kings earning a playoff berth. And part of the reason why is due to the Kings’ struggles in the offensive zone.
Of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, the Kings rank tied for dead last with only 151 goals for at 5-on-5. They also managed just 47 goals on the power play, which is ranked in the bottom half of the league in efficiency (just a 20.4 percent chance of conversion). This is surprising, too, considering the Kings are sitting pretty with talented point producers such as Anze Kopitar (a candidate for the Hart Trophy), Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Drew Doughty leading the way. But due to a shortage of scoring depth, the Kings seem to lack consistency in the offensive zone and fail to regularly capitalize on their power play attempts, which will put much more pressure on Quick to bail them out if they are unable to keep up with Vegas in the scoring department.
The Golden Knights have a pretty good goalie of their own
While Quick is easily one of the best goalies in hockey, Marc-Andre Fleury could very reasonably be considered the best goalie in hockey.
Fleury is in the midst of an incredible campaign. In 46 starts this season, the 33-year-old won 29 games, allowed an average of just 2.24 goals against per game and logged a .927 save percentage. Not that it’s much of a mystery anymore, but the three-time Stanley Cup winner, despite being overthrown by Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
However, what may give the Golden Knights a bit of an edge over the Kings is that Fleury will not necessarily need to be perfect to help Vegas advance to the second round of the playoffs. Even if Fleury has a subpar performance or two against Los Angeles, it isn’t crazy to assume that Vegas, which ranked tied for fourth in the league with 272 goals on the season, can make up for his struggles by routinely generating quality scoring chances — a luxury Quick may not always have, depending on which Kings team shows up.
Vegas will have plenty of power play opportunities
The Kings certainly aren’t the most disciplined team in the world. Los Angeles’ 319 penalties taken ranked 10th in the NHL during the regular season, which is obviously advantageous for the Golden Knights as their power play, while inconsistent, finished the regular season with a respectable 21.4 percent success rate (11th in the league).
That said, no team in the NHL had a better penalty kill than the Kings this season. Los Angeles killed off a ridiculous 85 percent of its penalties during the regular season, and there’s no reason to assume that will suddenly change once the postseason gets underway.
However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Golden Knights. While it’s obviously preferable that a team scores on the man advantage, the added benefit of keeping pucks out of the defensive zone is something that could pay dividends as Vegas looks to break down the Kings by relentlessly peppering shots on net and playing a quick transitional game.
Advanced metrics show Vegas outplayed the Kings during regular season
As mentioned earlier, the Kings and Golden Knights split the regular season series two games apiece. The Kings actually outscored Vegas 11-10 through those four games and, for the most part, managed to keep up fairly well with the Golden Knights’ speedy playmakers.
But the scoring doesn’t always tell the whole story.
In all of Vegas’ contests against Los Angeles, the Golden Knights drove play at a pretty desirable rate. Vegas averaged a 55.59 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 against the Kings during the regular season and, in their two losses to Los Angeles, averaged a 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of 55.45. In terms of possession, the Golden Knights certainly had the Kings’ number in their four regular season meetings.
The best way to keep a team from scoring? Don’t give up possession of the puck. Considering Vegas’ previous success in that department against Los Angeles, paired with the Kings’ unsteady ability to score goals, a trip to the second round of the playoffs doesn’t seem like much of a stretch if Vegas is on its game.
This will be no cakewalk for the Golden Knights. The Kings, though they may be just a wild card team, are still a very talented club with the potential to make a deep playoff run.
That said, this is certainly a winnable series for the Golden Knights. As long as Gerard Gallant and company keep their team playing the fast, skilled game it’s played all season, there should be plenty of opportunities for the Knights to take control.
All statistics courtesy of Corsica.Hockey and Natural Stat Trick.