Boring, But With Bright Spots

Were there a stat to measure such things, the Kings and Blue Jackets would have been recognized for playing the most boring hockey game in history Friday night. Neither team had any offensive pop from its set combinations. Between them they registered just 35 shots, and of them, three found the back of the net, with LA winning 2-1 in front of an honestly full house.

This was not an NHL sellout, which to anyone who goes to games means that a thousand seats or two will still be empty. This was an honest, kitty bar the door there ain’t no more, crowded-out Staples Center. Except during the playoffs, I don’t remember seeing even the lower bowl—the corporate seats—full, but on Friday, none were empty.

Too bad, because it was hard to feel a lot of energy from these two teams. In fact, most of the night, not watching was about the same as watching. The one bright spot was the play of LA Kings’ forward Kyle Clifford, on which more later.

After the game, both Jack Johnson of Columbus and Darryl Sutter of LA cited the Kings’ strong defensive play as a feature of the game. Sutter said, “We try to limit shots every night. That’s what you have to do to try to win games in this league. They didn’t have a lot of shots, obviously.”

And given that they’re one of the weaker teams in the NHL, one would think that that’s true night after night. In fact, it’s not. Of the thirteen games they had played coming into the night, Columbus had cracked thirty four times and forty once. The last two games, versus Edmonton and San Jose, they had 40 and 36. Their previous worst effort was 19 against Minnesota.

Johnson told IH, speaking about LA, “They play a great defensive game. They did a good job keeping us to the outside. They didn’t give us a lot, but you know, the onus is still on us. Give them credit where credit’s due, but it’s up to us to create more offense at the end of the day.”

When IH followed up to ask whether it was the Kings’ forwards or defense who contributed, he said, “When your forwards help you out, it’s huge. People playing defense as opposed to, they do it, they have to do it. Every team tries to do it, but they do it exceptionally well.”

Thing was, this wasn’t one of those games (Nashville) that you could look at and say ‘Wow—that’s a lesson in how to play defensive hockey,’ or remark on the amazing system that allowed one team to shut down another. This was just hockey played with short passes and no sense of coordination teammate to teammate.

Look down the road if you’re a SoCal fan, and like them or hate them, you’ll see something about the Ducks that differs from the Kings. They make long passes, diagonally in the zone oftentimes. This is for two reasons: they have speed, and one player knows where the other is going to be.

The Kings, by contrast, never move their feet, so they can’t take the chance of long passes that criss-cross through zones. They’re too risky in this circumstance. And the LA players look like they don’t feel each other, like there’s no instinct that’s developed one player to another. They can’t put pucks to where the guy will be—they don’t know where that is. The result is short, choppy passes where players don’t have their momentum going, or where they have to rely on their first couple of strides to power them past the other side. Selanne has that quick first step, even now. Few Kings do. The exception is a player who many would never have predicted would have as much offensive upside as he does, Kyle Clifford. And he provided one of the only thrilling moments of this game.

He made it 1-0 for LA with just over one minute left in period two. He stole the puck at his own blueline, on the left side of the ice. He spun around and picked it up off the boards as he streaked to the other end. Once he got inside the Columbus blueline, he angled slightly toward the net, and yet still from the left, shot long side. The puck went in just inside the far post.

IH asked him about the speed he displayed on the goal. “I’m trying to build my game and expand it a little bit, and become more of an all-around player than just a mucker and a grinder,” he replied.

Sutter later commented, “It’s the best decision to shoot, two on one.” But he later said, “He didn’t play much tonight, I’m not sure, he didn’t play on a, he was on two or three lines. We need his energy and his physical presence, and look, he hasn’t had not even a shot a game. We’ve been talking to him about shooting the puck more, instead of looking off. Like he had one shot tonight, and he’s only had seven or eight all year, so you shoot the puck, sometimes, good things happen.” Why not play him, then?

In fact, his icetime was 10:52, third lowest on the team, with only Jordan Nolan and Dwight King lower, at just about nine minutes apiece.

What was strange, and Sutter mentioned it, was that he played with so many combos. He played early on with Justin Williams and Jeff Carter. He was also with Kopitar and Brown. Both of those were in the first period. In the second, it was again Carter and Williams. In the third, he appeared with Stoll and Trevor Lewis. These were the players also on the ice when he scored his goal, as was mentioned, to end the second period. Funny that with that many different lines, he got in such paltry minutes.

By the way, he also commented on the defensive play in the game. “I think we played pretty strong defensively. Bernier wasn’t giving them a lot of second chances. He was getting rebounds [to go] off the glass or into the corners. We had some guys stepping in and blocking shots.”

He further told IH about his intentions for his year. “I wouldn’t say I’m stepping away from [fighting]. I’m just picking and choosing my spots better. I don’t really want, uh, twenty fights a year every year. It’s not good for your body, as far as your hands and your head. It’s not that I’m trying to get away from [it], but maybe just pick and choose my spots.” He found himself in a tussle with Columbus’s meathead, Jared Boll, at the end of the second period. It stemmed from an earlier Dustin Penner hit on Boll, which was a retaliation for Boll hitting one of the LA players.

Clifford did not drop his stick, though Boll dropped his gloves and grabbed the stick to try to begin a fight. Boll got two minutes for roughing, and on the power play, which began period three, the Kings scored their second goal, which would end up the winner.

So call it boring with a couple of bright spots, one being the surprising Kyle Clifford, whose offensive skill and even temper made it possible for LA to pick up two points.

The Kings are hardly home now, but they’ll play 13 of 16 at home in March. They now go on the road again, for three games, before returning to LA for three, including Colorado on the 23rd.

Notes

Kings’ prospect Clayton Yellow Horn is doing well in Manchester after tearing up the ECHL in scoring.

Kings fans, they’re away this week. Maybe you could sneak in a read of one of my books? Thanks!

Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey please. Few tweets, but good ones.

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