Coyotes Falter, and Kings Capitalize

How important was the game Wednesday night between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings in LA? By one measure, pretty important. That was the TV coverage, which saw the teams featured on NBC Sports Network. That it was a 7:30 start probably meant that most East Coasters were about to head to bed right around faceoff time, but no matter. The feeling that the game mattered was something.

On the other hand, those in the LA area whose cable systems demand extra money for the premium channels might have been a little peeved. No matter, the building was full, as it has been every night for nearly as long as anyone can remember.

There were hardly any “foreigners,” ie, fans of the opposite team, in the house. Over the past little while, especially with the Kings having played the Canadian teams, that’s been the phenomenon. But had there been, any hopes they might have had that the Coyotes came to play, roaring out to an early lead, would have evaporated, and the Kings were the ones scoring off of the puck drop. Aside from tiny dogs, I have no idea what Coyotes eat, but this pack wasn’t at all hungry, by the evidence of their play.

Thing is, Phoenix came into the game tied with Dallas in points for the last spot in the Western playoff seedings, but with one more game played, and thus out of it in ninth. In other words, they had to win this one just to stay even if Dallas wins its next. But they had no urgency about them. Now, they had played the night before, at home, and traveled to Wednesday’s game after that. The Tuesday game, by the way, produced an overtime loss, and thus a point. But they had lost the one before that, and the six games preceding the LA contest, had seen two wins, two OT losses, and two outright losses. That’s hardly the kind of performance that might be needed down the stretch in a conference whose two lowest playoff seeds would both be in 6th in the East.

Another way to say it—Phoenix came into the night with 85 points and six games remaining. They could thus top out at 97 points, and many think that 95 is the only sure way to make the post-season. They thus had absolutely no room for error.

But they made one early on, and LA was leading on a steal by Carter that was fed to Tanner Pearson less than two minutes in. The play came when Carter grabbed a puck outside the blueline and worked it into the zone, then slid it across to the youngster, who notched his third goal of the season on a one-timer from one knee.

The game was only so interesting after that until the third, so here’s something other than the non-action on the ice to think about: the Kings’ lineup seems to have solidified in advance of the playoffs, a good thing. But what it is, at least in terms of the forward combos, is a bit bizarre.

The first two trios are put together to score. Duh—what else would they do? Well, not often can it be said that this team has its head wrapped around the need to score more than the need to defend. So to see Toffoli, Pearson, and Carter combining, and Kopitar, Gaborik, and Williams also, is nice.

But behind them is a third line, and fourth one too, that just don’t add up to fit any formula familiar to hockey fans.

Here are the personnel: on line three, Jordan Nolan, Brown, and Stoll. Here’s why that’s weird—Brown is the captain and a first- or second-liner most of the time. Nolan is more or less a fourth-liner. Stoll is the only one who fits into the framework of the checking center who is happier shutting someone else down than scoring himself.

The fourth line is Richards, Clifford, and Trevor Lewis. Why does that make no sense? What the heck are you asking for? I just said Mike Richards is a fourth-line player. He of the 41 points in 71 games coming in. The guy who scores at about a two-thirds a point per game clip over his career, which would put him at about sixty for the year most years. He who had more than thirty goals twice with the Flyers, but whose goal production has gone down steadily since he came to LA.

Aha. There’s the thing. This offense-killing system of Sutter’s has caught up with this player, and he has suffered a demotion because of it. Just for the history of it, note that his goals last year, 12 in 48 games, are thus far more than he’s had (11) in 77 games this season.

Trevor Lewis might be a prototypical fourth-line player, but as a useful faceoff man and a guy who can shadow and pester the opposition and who is almost always really low in terms of penalty minutes despite having to take care of other team’s faster players, he’s a third-liner in the classic mold. And that leaves only one guy on the fourth line who probably ought to be there. Pity Mr. Clifford, or don’t, but he’s got three goals this year, he’s the team’s designated meathead, and if he weren’t playing hockey, it’s unlikely he’d be a high school math teacher. Just saying.

So what’s Sutter doing? Perhaps he’s punishing Richards for something. Perhaps he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that a third line needs to be a checking line made up of the best players available for the job, and indeed, the Kings have done quite well with whatever scheme he’s cooked up to limit other teams’ goal scoring. Not that the goalie doesn’t have anything to do with that. (Like the double-neg there?)

Little of this had anything to do with the listless performance of the Coyotes in this crucial game. The Kings were outshooting them by a factor of almost double after two periods (22-12), and leading 2-0. But it could have been four-zip, and the Kings had an excellent chance on the power play, with a slapshot by Slava Voynov coming through for a save by goalie Thomas Greiss and then the rebound being slammed into his pads by Justin Williams.

Later in the second, Jeff Carter picked up a puck at center and zoomed past a defender to his right and in on net. He deked and shot, and Greiss went with him right to left and got the right pad down to make the save. He was well out on top of the crease at the time. It was lovely to see, but not a great portent for the Coyotes.

The team got no better in the third, putting a pathetic five shots on goal to record their worst total of the year, 17. The Kings, meanwhile, had ten and scored twice more. It was an energized crowd, used to the LA team’s stingy ways on both offense and defense, which really enjoyed the show.

Afterwards, Coach Dave Tippett was glum but willing to explain the events. “We gave up a goal early and got chasing the game, and that probably wasn’t the ideal circumstance to put ourselves in. In the first period we hung around it, but we just couldn’t get anything to go our way. We had a couple of chances that we thought we could . . . get ourselves back in the game, find something.” He later said that they were not good on the power play, “It’s kind of dried up a little bit.” The team had only two chances with the extra man, but they gave up four. The Kings scored both their second and fourth goal on the power play.

Player Keith Yandle had much the same to say. “You’ve got to have a short memory. We’ve got to come back Friday . . . and get two points, that’s for sure. You can’t blame this on the turnaround.” He continued to say that they lost the specialty teams game and that “you hope that you can get the first goal or get something going early,” but when that didn’t happen, “We were still in the game. I thought we played alright, but it’s one of those things where we couldn’t find a way to get to the net. When Quick sees the puck, he’s going to save it, and we didn’t do a good job of getting to him.” He explained the low shot totals by saying, “They did a good job obviously blocking us out.”

The team now has five remaining. Edmonton is in Arizona on Friday. Then the Coyotes find themselves in Columbus and Nashville. Then it’s home for San Jose and Dallas. A pretty tough road, and if Martin Hanzal is right, “We’ve got five games left. We know how important these points [are], and we’ve got to make sure we carry the rest and get in.”

The Kings, meantime, are playing San Jose, then Vancouver, then Calgary and Edmonton back-to-back, and then home for a final tilt with Anaheim in what could be a playoff preview.

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