What I don’t need to tell followers of the Kings is that the team is peaking at the right time. They had won 12 of 15 games since the Olympic break coming into their game with Winnipeg on Saturday night. They had won five straight in recent days, including three in a row on the East coast concluding with a 3-2 win in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. And as Sutter has repeatedly said, it doesn’t matter to him where the team ends up the regular season, “The goal is to make the playoffs.”
At some point, they will admit that they’ve done that, but not yet. In fact, even after the Winnipeg game, he repeated his mantra: “You’re not a playoff team until you make the playoffs.” It’s not caution on the part of the coach, but rather the demand of his players that nothing is presumed. Not whether they’ll play after April 12th, their final regular season game. And not that they will win on any given night. That’s perhaps why, with the Jets in town, they still went with their best lineup—Matt Greene was sitting, as was Jordan Nolan, and in net, Jonathan Quick rather than Martin Jones.
Of course, Jones played on Thursday in Pittsburgh and thus might have been a bit on the tired side for Saturday, but think about that in its own right—LA goes into Pittsburgh having won two of three on their road trip and riding a seven-game road winning streak, and instead of starting their main man, they put in the backup. To win against Washington and Philly, which they had done before this game, didn’t mean very much perhaps—probably no need to send a message to either of those teams for a potential June encounter. But the Pens, well, they might end up running through the East, and thus would be the only obstacle to a second Kings Stanley Cup. So why not show them the money and put in Quick?
But when you don’t, then maybe it means even more that you win, and that’s the message Sutter and his crew ended up sending, whether they realized that they were doing that or not.
So here it is two nights later, and the chances that the LA team would lose to the boys from Winnipeg would, to most statistical minds, seem slight. And yet they put in the number one against them.
In fact, in period one, the Kings faced little challenge in running up three goals on 16 shots. This was helped by a stationary Jets defense and a lot of LA speed. As I’ve said before, both here and on twitter (@growinguphockey), this team is altogether different with Marian Gaborik on the squad. It’s like having him has given Coach Sutter the excuse to lay off the “defense first” mantra that has been both the blessing and the curse of the team since he’s been here, but particularly in the current season.
And Gaborik was up to his magic again versus the Winnipeg team. He assisted on his team’s second and third goals after the first was put in on an angle shot by fourth-liner Trevor Lewis. The second goal was Kopitar’s, a puck he kneed into the net on a rebound. The third, again Kopitar’s on a rebound off a shot that started at the point and went through Gaborik, who put a touch on it, then off the pad of Pavelic in net and out to Kopitar for the tap-in.
So what could the Jets do in the face of this onslaught?
A run-down of the stats shows that in almost every category, the Kings are far superior. But in two, they are one place behind the Jets. Those are the crucial power play and penalty kill. In the former, the Jets are 25th in the league, the Kings 26th. In the latter, the numbers are tenth for the Jets and eleventh for the Kings. Maybe that marginal a difference makes no real difference.
They might have been helped had the game not been played essentially at even strength. There were two minors in the first, one to each team, and neither produced any scoring. In frame two, nobody went to the box. And there was no scoring at all in that period. In the third, there were two Kings penalties and one to the Jets. The visiting team did, actually, bang in a goal with the extra man. But it was not to help, much. More on that in a moment.
So what the Jets tried as an offense was essentially low wristers at a goalie who will almost never lets that kind of shot by him. Quick’s legs flashed time and again in period one to deny the Jets. Period two, they got their brains in gear and started to shoot higher. The problem was, there was no coordinated team attack in place, only one player working the puck in and then another. Bryan Little stole a puck in the neutral zone and went in alone for a backhand shot. Nothing.
Later, Byfuglein went in and tried one from the right side. Nope. Then he got it back and went around the net, came out the left side, and tried it again, with the same result.
The Kings were not spectacular in their chances, and they didn’t take these loose pucks after Quick’s saves and wheel them up ice. Their offense was limited to a few less-than-coordinated attacks that netted seven shots in the period, to the Jets’ four. But then again, they didn’t have to be. They had the game well in hand by this point.
But the third period started out with them even more back on their heels than they’d been in their over-confident second frame. They sat around and watched while the Jets dug a puck out from behind the net and got it to the crease. There, Matt Halischuk banged it in to make the game 3-1.
Michael Frolik created havoc after that, getting the puck to the net a couple of times, including one dangerous shot that went high on Quick, but after another Jets try went out on a long rebound, Tyler Toffoli scored his 12th of the year as he streaked down the left side and fired a long wrister. Good shot, but it should not have gone in. Montoya, playing since the start of period two, was too far back in his net and, inexplicably, was guarding the five-hole. The puck went by his arm.
So one thing is clear, and it’s what the tweeters were saying—the Jets are in serious trouble in net. Their coach would later say that this was not at all the case, though.
Not that it matters. With the eventual loss to the Kings, they remained stagnant at 75 points, while Vancouver stagnated ahead of them with 79 in losing to the Ducks. And with only seven games, left, their deficit to the final playoff spot, nine points, looks pretty much impossible to surmount.
Their problem, according to their coach, has nothing to do with goalies. Rather, it’s two things, micro and macro. Micro, on the night, they didn’t come out hard. They had beaten the Sharks two nights prior, and they had every reason to roar into LA, but they didn’t, and Paul Maurice was not happy about that. “It taught a real good lesson in the first period about being ready to play a hard game. We gave them too much ice to play on, backing up. . . . Then two periods you play as hard as you possibly can. Some nights your hands are going to be there, some nights they’re not, but you play that hard, most nights, and you’re going to have a chance. We were looking for a smoother way to play that first period, and it just wasn’t there.”
Just to finish the summary: the Jets got within two, then LA scored again a soft goal, in my opinion, and then the Jets did get a power play goal, with about half of period three left. They couldn’t do anything with the 4-2 shortfall, though. Their final two minutes were frantic, and created a few chances, including a shot that Quick did a two-pad leg save, old-school style, and another which he saved by kicking a leg up and out behind him. But they had nothing else. Halischuk said after, “It’s definitely a regroup for us and a learning lesson,” and funny how that language was an echo of his coach’s. See what’s next here.
Macro level, they haven’t quite figured out how to do the right things to win, day by day. He described this as well: “There’s the learning lesson in this one. How do you wind yourself back up as hard as we need to to compete against that team? That’s what our focus will be going into the next game.” He later added, “We talked about this. Routine. What your morning skates are supposed to look like. What your practices are supposed to look like, trying to get the energy right. We have to work every day. We have to do the right things every day.”
On the netminders, he said, “I’m not putting that one at the goaltenders’ feet [plural]. Could the goalies have been better? . . . Yes, but that wasn’t a goalie issue, in that period.” He repeated this point twice more to take up one minute of his three minutes of comment on the game, and put the responsibility on the players, who didn’t start at the drop of the puck.
The Jets now have Anaheim and Phoenix away, while the Kings have Minnesota and Phoenix at home. For the Jets, that’s got to look like hell. But Evander Kane wasn’t too negative. “It’s frustrating that we didn’t play the way we played in the third period in the first period. That’s the frustrating part. We’ve got to be a lot better than that, down 3-0 after the first period coming off a win against San Jose. You need everybody going, and we didn’t have that.”