The LA Kings lost two separate one-goal leads on their way to a 3-2 regulation time loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in game four. It was at Staples, but probably twenty percent of the crowd were decked out in Chicago gear. The Kings lost the crowd toward the end of the first period, but regained it in the second as they scored at 2:12 to go up 2-1. Through the middle of the period they were shorthanded. Three separate penalties, including one that put them down two men for about a minute, were killed off. The yelling increased. There was hope, and the score was in their favor, 2-1. The visitors tied it with less than two minutes to go in the frame.
As the third wound on, it was pure frustration for the home fans as they watched their team get just two shots on goal despite blowing the 2-2 tie at 1:10 of the period and thus having every reason to need to rally. Their only two shots on the period were not dangerous, with the last, their 21st on the night, coming out of the corner by Kopitar with Brown in front. Desperation was the word, but there wasn’t enough of it to fling pucks from every angle, as might have been the strategy.
The Blackhawks were playing without Duncan Keith, of course, he of 24:44 average ice-time thus far this playoff. They added Sheldon Brookbank in on defense in his stead, but he got just 6:50 of ice-time. The strategy that Coach Quenneville and a couple of his players cited after the game was “team defense,” but while they meant all five guys helping out on any play, in fact, his strategy for managing his defensive corps was to ride the top four. Mercilessly.
Hjalmarsson, who typically gets about 20 minutes a game, had about 25. Seabrook uppped his minutes by four. Leddy had about ten more than his typical average of about 15. Ditto Rozsival. Oduya had a few extra.
“We are a very deep team. It’s not about the individual on this team,” Rozsival said after, “It’s great to see all the guys contributing, even when we are missing a guy like Keith.”
The coach followed an interesting strategy at times, seeming to change just one guy on D and leave the other out, then take him out and add one more, and so on. Thus on one sequence, it was Oduya and Rozsival, then they went off. On came Hjalmarsson and Leddy. Then Oduya came back on and Leddy departed, leaving Oduya and Hjalmarsson.
In the hallway after the game, Scotty Bowman was talking to someone, and he said, “Oduya had a good game, Kane, too.”
In fact, the Hawks’ offense wasn’t overpowering, but good when it needed to be. They featured two strengths, really: Hossa going down the middle, and Kane going down the boards. The goal that started it for them was on a flip pass into the middle of the ice picked up by Bickell. He broke in and shot long, watching the puck take a bounce off Quick’s leg and in. Daryl Sutter labeled it a bad goal.
Quenneville shifted his lines toward the end of the second period, which put Kane, Toews, and Bickell together (he usually plays with Handzus and Sharp, by his words after the game). This meant that Hossa could play with Handzus and Sharp. The former line got the team’s second goal; the latter line got the third. Was Sutter outcoached? He wasn’t answering all that many questions after, and certainly, that one didn’t come up.
The Kings’ major weakness was their breakouts. They just couldn’t figure out a way to get out of the zone, but they tried two strategies. One was for the winger to chip the puck past the D and then try to recover it. The Chicago defensemen were often too smart to be fooled by the chip. The second was to carry it out in a wave of three. The problem is, there was no speed generated, and thus the line of three would move slowly up the ice, into the waiting defense of the Blackhawks, and see the puck lost.
Their power play was also dreadful. One chance, for instance, saw Carter, Scuderi, and Doughty out in an umbrella passing, passing, passing, and never taking a shot or working the puck to the net. They were 0-3 on the night, keeping the numbers of Chicago up in the stratosphere for kills during the playoffs. During the first power play, also, Carter twice chipped a puck behind him along the right boards and saw it turned over and out of the zone. It was just not possible for the Kings to head to the net in any circumstances, it seemed.
The Kings did not make any lineup changes from the other night in LA. That evening, they had inserted Muzzin in place of Martinez on defense. Their lines, too, stayed stable, until the third, when Sutter tried some new ideas. One was Brown with Fraser and Richardson. Another was to put Stoll with King and Lewis, taking Kopitar off the line. The one unit that stayed together was Carter, Penner, and Toffoli, and Sutter cited them as a strong group all evening.
What offense LA had was in the form of the fourth line of Clifford, Richardson, and Fraser, who were responsible for tough play behind the net that led to the first goal, a slapper by Voynov. Also noticable all night was Dwight King, a big player who can use his size. He carried the puck up the left wall quite a bit to throw it to center for chances. This was less true in period three, where he played three and a half minutes but recorded no shots.
Their second goal, by the way, was a Penner score, though the work was all Carter’s. He took the puck down the ice, avoiding a check at the blueline of the Kings, and then on net with a weak backhand. Penner was on the spot to slam it in.
Dustin Brown and Kopitar, derided for their lack of production (five goals between them thus far; Voynov has six alone), didn’t do anything to change that Thursday. Neither figured anywhere in the scoring, and though Kopitar had almost 22 minutes, he had but one shot. Browin played about 16 with no shots. He had four hits, which is typical. The team leader was Penner, with five. The team was led in shots by Carter with four, seconded by Robyn Regehr, with three.
The Kings made a push in period three, as the Blackhawks’ stat of seven blocked shots in the frame would indicate. From upstairs, that effort was less noticed than the general stifling of any chances they had by the opposing team. They finished with 21 shots, as indicated, and the Blackhawks 28. Sutter said after, “We had to go for it a little bit, down 3-2, and we tried to stretch it out. . . . They did a good job of plugging it up and keeping the lead.”
One time, the Kings have come from down 3-1 in a series. That was the 1989 Division semis versus Edmonton in 1989. Their hope will be to start a similar process in Chicago on Saturday, a building that will be loud, as their coach reminded us after Thursday’s game.
The Kings have now played 37 playoff games in the last two years, more than any other team in the NHL. Some people were speculating afterwards that the were tired in period three. The truth was more that they just couldn’t get past the Blackhawks in the neutral zone. Whether that’s due to Sutter’s claim of clogging or just not having speed and simply not playing a game based on breakouts is anyone’s call. Sutter was asked about the low shots in period three and he responded by saying that he’d already answered that question.
He also said, when asked how the team will come out on Saturday, “I think you can answer that yourself,” so here’s an answer: they’ll play better, but they’ll have a hard time containing the Blackhawks, especially given that Keith will have returned.
Richards was in the press box again, looking fine, but obviously dealing with concussion problems.
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