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Puck management focal point of Kings-Sharks series

by Corey Masisak

SAN JOSE -- Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter said there are a lot of similarities between his team and the San Jose Sharks.

One of those similarities is their desire, and ability, to possess the puck. This Western Conference First Round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a dream matchup for fans of hockey analytics, and specifically the advanced puck possession statistics that are becoming more popular within the sport.

Whether it is Corsi, Fenwick or simply shots on goal, the Sharks and Kings are among the NHL leaders in all of them and in every even-strength situation.

"It is a lot like playing yourself, so it will come down to who does it better. That's going to be the key, whoever takes care of the details," Sharks defenseman Jason Demers said. "It's going to come down to puck management, execution and forecheck. You're going to have to give it up sometimes because L.A. plays it pretty tight in the neutral zone and so are we. We like to force pucks deep. You have to get on the forecheck on these guys. You can't let them make their breakouts and the little plays that we also like to make."

Kings captain Dustin Brown said, "It is a staple of our game and a staple of their game, so I think whoever manages the puck best has the upper hand in the game and this series. That's a game within the game, the puck possession aspect of it."

The Kings were the best team in the League in both Corsi-for percentage (56.8 percent) and Fenwick-for percentage (56.1) at even strength during the regular season. The Sharks were fifth in CF% (53.8) and third in Fenwick (54.1), but the style San Jose likes to play leads to more volume of attempts.

San Jose had 4,255 shot attempts at even strength this season, 153 more than the second-best team (the Ottawa Senators) and nearly 200 more than the third-place Kings.

"The makeup of their team is a little different, but we still come to the same place," Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "I think we're No. 1 and No. 3 in puck possession. It doesn't matter which way you go about it, I think we both get to the same place.

"It comes down to a lot of battles, a lot of one-on-one battles, a lot of physical puck battles. We call them 50-50 battles when the puck is up for grabs, and we want to win as many of them as we can. Once we have the puck, we have to make sure we make good decisions with it and be responsible with it and not generate too many turnovers to help them out."

Neither of these teams wants to give up the puck, but each is great at getting it back. They're also both great at winning faceoffs. San Jose and Los Angeles each finished the season at 52.8 percent on faceoffs, which placed them second in the League.

Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski each won more than 56 percent of their faceoffs this season, while Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll were all above 53 percent.

"It starts in the faceoff circle, and I think you've got two and three as far as League faceoffs go," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "If you start with it, you don't waste a lot of energy trying to get it. And that may sound strange, but if you start with it and you give it up, it's usually going into the opposition's end and you can get on the forecheck."

Los Angeles is a big team. The Kings embody the phrase "heavy hockey" that has become popular in the past few years, and their Stanley Cup victory in 2012 was a portrait of physical, grinding play.

They are not afraid to put the puck in the corner and go get it back, but they are also a faster team than they might sometimes get credit for. Adding Marian Gaborik and Tyler Toffoli to the lineup has added more speed and creativity to one with championship pedigree.

"They like to lean on teams," Demers said. "They're big and their fast. We have the same type of mold and makeup. It's about getting there first, and if you don't have a good forecheck, you're going to be chasing the puck all night. It's a huge thing we stress, have a good forecheck, create turnovers and that way you don't lose it for that long."

The Sharks are just as deep and talented. They are fast and play faster, but also are bigger and more physical than often credited.

"I know that's a big part of both teams," McLellan said. "You'll hear a lot about shooting and getting it back, puck recoveries and retrievals, probably from both teams. I think there's a similar approach to that. After that, the will, the want, the desire. The puck really doesn't care who gets there first. In fact it doesn't even know. We get to decide that.

"It's who wants it and who gets their nose over it the quickest and is willing to battle the hardest that comes up with it more often than not. All these Corsis and all these types of ratings, do they take that into consideration? I don't know. It's evident when you watch the games over and over again which team is hungrier. I hope it's ours."

Corsi does help measure exactly what McLellan is talking about. It's often referred to as "the little things" or "things that don't show up on the score sheet," but all of that -- winning puck battles, getting the puck out of the defensive zone, making the correct play in the neutral zone -- goes into possessing the puck and having more shot attempts than the opponent.

Teams have been reluctant to divulge how much they track advanced statistics and which metrics they value more than others, but Regehr confirmed it is prevalent for the Kings' coaching staff.

"I think it is more so in the room next door with the coaches. I think they pour over that kind of stuff," Regehr said. "I don't think the guys pay too close attention on a daily basis, but they're aware of it partly because it is brought up by the coaches every now and again. For me personally, there was a couple times this year the defensemen coach came to me and said, 'This is what your ratings were on the road trip or this is how it is trending.'

"Sometimes the numbers will confirm you had a good game, and then other times you feel like you played awful and you had a good Corsi rating. I think it is a small piece of the puzzle, and as a player you can't get too fixated on it. I think you have to be aware of what it takes to be successful at your game and prepare to do that."

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