Part of what makes the NHL playoffs so great is how fickle momentum tends to be.
We've seen it time and time again this spring. Two-goal leads can evaporate in the blink of an eye, and teams that dominate puck possession one period can find themselves hemmed in their own zone through much of the next 20 minutes.
After taking Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks stormed out to a quick 2-0 lead on L.A. in Game 2, putting the Kings in a vulnerable position.
The Kings had some awful defensive breakdowns in the early portion of this contest, two of which led to goals against: A short-handed turnover in the neutral zone allowed Nick Leddy to drive to the crease relatively uncontested and give Chicago a first period lead, and a poor line change early in the second permitted Ben Smith to receive a clean stretch pass and put another one in the net.
These mishaps gave the Blackhawks all the momentum, and at the time, Extra Skater's win expectancy chart had Chicago as a roughly 90 percent favorite to come out on top. One more goal, and the Hawks could have put the game out of reach.
12:43 into the middle frame, Chicago got a chance to do just that. Kris Versteeg -- who had a rather unremarkable game, this sequence notwithstanding -- stormed down the left wing to create a two-on-one with teammate Brent Seabrook. Versteeg waited the perfect amount of time before dishing the puck to Seabrook, who appears to have a wide open chunk of twine right in front of him.
Then Jonathan Quick did what Jonathan Quick does best. The former Conn Smythe winner sprawled across the crease to make a fantastic save with his left arm, robbing the streaking D-man and keeping the deficit at two.
This wasn't necessarily a turning point, as Chicago took seven of the next 10 shot attempts, but it did provide LA with the chance to get the big momentum changer it so desperately needed.
Thanks to a beautiful stop and a not-so-beautiful goal, a game that could have easily been 3-0 heading into second intermission was now 2-1. The momentum had swung the other way.
By now, you know how this one ended. The Kings scored five more times in the third, giving LA a wild 6-2 victory to tie the series-handing Chicago its first home loss of the playoffs.
How the Kings took control
ExtraSkater's Fenwick chart does a solid job illustrating when Los Angeles began taking control. Williams' goal gave the Kings a big jolt, and unsurprisingly, the shot differential starts to widen quite a bit.
Those red horizontal lines denote stretches when Chicago was unable to put an unblocked shot attempt toward Los Angeles' net. The ‘Hawks only took three unblocked shot attempts between the Kings' first and fourth goals, and Chicago only took 15 attempts after Williams' initial tally. Additionally, only one of those attempts came from less than 20 feet from Los Angeles' net.
The numbers here suggest Chicago was pinned in its own zone through much of the third stanza. After all, shot attempts are a proxy for possession -- if a team isn't firing pucks toward the goal, common sense tells us that said team isn't moving play down the rink.
However, that is not the case here.
The reason for this odd situation is Los Angeles' ability to prevent Chicago from generating offense after gaining the zone. According to Eric Tulsky's data over at FiveThirtyEight, Chicago has recorded just three shots on goal on 57 dump-ins that didn't involve line changes so far this series, and, relative to what we normally see, were also highly ineffective after carry-ins.
An older story written by Tulsky here at SBNation.com, in which he breaks down a sample of 75 Kings games, shows that although the Kings are below average in terms of carry-in percentage, they've proven capable of milking a lot out of their trips to the offensive end of the ice.
Their opponents, on the other hand, haven't been nearly as productive in this regard.
This was visible on Wednesday. The Hawks' poor possession numbers weren't so much a product of them getting trapped in their own end -- they were a product of Chicago's ineffectiveness in LA's territory.
So how do the Kings pull this off, especially against such stiff competition?
There are many answers to this question -- they poke check well; they are physical in the corners; they clog shooting lanes, etc. -- but one of the biggest (and least talked about) factors at play is Los Angeles' knack for to composing efficient breakouts.
The importance of the crisp breakout
Passing is easy to overlook, especially in the pro ranks when many fans expect these guys to be nearly perfect in this facet of the game. But being able to consistently fire tape-to-tape passes can make a tremendous difference, and the Kings prove that as well as anyone.
Here's an example from the Kings' Game 7 against Anaheim. It's worth noting that just before this sequence began, Anaheim crossed L.A.'s blue line twice, only to have the puck quickly knocked out.
Here the puck is sent deep and Matt Greene gets there first behind the goal line.
Pearson, positioned along the boards, doesn't even look up before sweeping the puck over to Jeff Carter.
Carter sees an opening and sprints forward. And just like that, the Kings are generating a breakout.
As the clock at the top of the screen shows, only four seconds passed between Greene's initial contact in the corner and the final frame.
A similar example came from LA's victory on Wednesday.
Matt Greene battles for the puck behind the net and beats out Peter Regin.
Greene sends the puck along the boards up to Pearson, who was met immediately by a Chicago defender...
...so he quickly chips it to Jeff Carter.
Carter uses his speed to find open space, leading to a two-on-one. Moments later, after skating down the left side, he scores LA's fifth goal of the night.
So the Kings don't mind if you cross their zone. Go for it. They'll just muscle you off the puck, make an accurate pass and be out of there in a matter of seconds.
This is something to watch for as the Western Conference Final continues to unfold. Should the Kings continue to stymie Chicago's attack the way they did in Game 2, it may be something to look for in the Cup Final, as well.