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Kings thrive on right mix of analytics, attitude

by Corey Masisak / Los Angeles Kings

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- For three years now the Los Angeles Kings have been the best example of why analytics matter in the NHL.

Los Angeles was a No. 8 seed in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but people who pored over "advanced statistics" were more than willing to call the Kings a contender when few others would.

As the use of analytics has continued to permeate the sport, more pundits have recognized why the Kings were considered a top candidate to win the 2014 Stanley Cup after finishing tied for ninth in the League in points.

The Kings also are potential champions because of other, less-quantifiable things. How teammates get along with each other, how players are able or willing to accept direction from the coaching staff, why certain players or teams are able to excel in adverse times -- these are qualities people outside NHL dressing rooms love to talk about but cannot enumerate.

Los Angeles was the best puck-possession team in the NHL this season, and the Kings are among the clubs at the forefront of using other analytics to squeeze out tiny advantages. That is definable.

The Kings also are an elite team when it comes to the undefinable, a harmony of sorts that has them three victories from a second Stanley Cup in three years and poised to contend for several more.

"For our team, it's just a result of us being together for a long time," captain Dustin Brown said. "I think that goes a longer ways than most people think. When it gets really hard, really tough, you know the guy next to you very well. You know what he's going to do in those types of situations. You can rely on each other in ways that a team that is just forming or getting together, you don't necessarily have that trust built up to weather the storm when you need to."

This run to the Stanley Cup Final has been every bit as historic as the one from 2012, but in a completely different context. The Kings waltzed through the 2012 playoffs, building a 3-0 series lead four times and losing a total of four games despite starting every series on the road.

This year's group has taken a much different route. There have been deficits to overcome, including a historic comeback in the Western Conference First Round. They won three Game 7s away from Staples Center, with two of them stunning for Los Angeles' dominance and the third for how the Kings were again able to just find a way to win.

It happened again in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers. The Kings started sluggishly but finished with a flourish, scoring three unanswered goals in a 3-2 overtime win.

Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is Saturday at Staples Center (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

"I think there's a mentality that goes, you know, do you want to be a division champion or a Stanley Cup champion?" Brown said. "There's a mentality to that. The way we play the game, it's a tough game to play. There's teams that get far more points than us during the regular season. But when it comes to playoff time, our type of style, our type of game we play, the players that we have, we become a really hard team to beat four times in seven games.

"It's funny. When you look at Staples, we don't have banners all the way across but we have the banner we want. We're in the process or in search of that next banner."

The Kings haven't won a division title since 1992-93. The only recent banners hanging from the rafters celebrate a Western Conference championship and the Stanley Cup in 2011-12. Los Angeles is seeking to complete a second pair to be raised at the start of next season.

"For us, the division title or Western Conference championship doesn't mean too much if you don't get the ultimate goal," forward Jeff Carter said. "We come in every year at training camp focused on winning the Stanley Cup. That's our mindset from Day 1. Coaches do a great job of keeping us set on that plan, along with our leaders, the players in the room. Everybody knows what we need to do to get it done. We go out and do it."

Teams use "identity" and "culture" all the time, but more often than not it's because the players want to believe there is something about their team that separates it from others. If there are examples of whatever unquantifiable advantage a strong identity or a winning culture can give a club, the Kings are among those benefiting.

Mike Richards was the No. 1 center and co-face of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. He is the No. 4 center on this team, though coach Darryl Sutter can find ways to inflate his ice time when Richards is playing well.

Richards and Carter were traded (in separate deals) because a team wanted to shake up its identity or culture (or whatever they wanted to call it at the time). Each has welcomed a new role with the Kings.

Carter has become an all-around dynamo, a prototypical No. 2 center behind Anze Kopitar. Richards has accepted his reduced role but gives the Kings a serious advantage because no other team has four centers quite like this group.

"I don't think it's very hard at all when you have a good relationship with players and you've had a track record of winning with those players. That player [Richards] has a track record of winning and for sure understanding what his role is," Sutter said. "Basically he just wins. He's had to accept roles. Doesn't matter if you think he's a first-line centerman or second-line centerman. The only reward for somebody like Mike Richards in all this is just winning. He's all set. He's won everything. It's just winning again; that's all."

Carter joined the Kings before the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline and instantly was a big hit. Marian Gaborik has done the same in 2014. He, like Carter, was a wayward elite scorer. Gaborik has become a difference-maker in short order for the Kings.

He credited his new teammates for welcoming him and going out of their way to make him feel comfortable. The Kings have a very defined way they play hockey, yet Sutter said when Gaborik arrived he made it clear he didn't want the dynamic forward to feel like he had to change the way he played.

Gaborik has fit in seamlessly and leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 12 goals.

"When you have a group of guys that get along really, really well, you get a guy like Gaborik coming in, it's easy to just mesh him into the group because there's no group of players over [here or over] there," Brown said. "There's none of that on our team. On the road we have a lot of time. You're not hanging out with the same two, three guys every time. There are no cliques on our team. When a new guy comes in, he doesn't have to go hang out with those guys or these guys.

"I think it's how this group that's been here for years, and [we] can bring guys in and implement them in and make them just feel comfortable, allow them to play the game they want to play. [Gaborik] is probably the best example. We knew what we were getting. It's just making him comfortable, pushing him in the right direction, the way we want to play. Then his game takes care of itself."

More often than not the answer to why the Kings have been so successful is talent. They, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, have what most pundits would consider the most talented rosters in the NHL, and that is significant.

Each team also has a great coach and a great front office that has embraced analytics while looking for advantages.

There are other talented teams that have not been able to reach the same levels of success as the Kings and Blackhawks. Some of that is bad luck. Some of it is chance.

Some of it probably is intangibles. The Kings, like the Blackhawks, are well-stocked in that department too.

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22

Author: Corey Masisak | Staff Writer

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