The LA Kings had just gotten things right in their lineup a couple of nights ago, triumphing 2-1 over the Florida Panthers after having shifted their forwards here and there and everywhere on Monday night when the San Jose Sharks were defeated by an outstanding Jonathan Quick, 2-0.
In that game, Dustin Brown played left wing, Justin Williams was relegated to the fourth line, and Trent Hunter found himself playing alongside the top two guys, Kopitar and Brown. Strange, but it worked as the Kings won the game and the next one, too.
The Florida victory was more costly than it should have been, as two key players, defenseman Willie Mitchell and center Mike Richards, suffered injuries. Mitchell came out having played just a minute, an undisclosed lower body injury plaguing him. In fact, it was an injury that he had suffered earlier in the week and thought he could play through. The team has been no more specific about the situation.
With Richards, it’s bad news, potentially very bad. He took a check from Sean Bergenheim of the Flyers which made contact with the shoulder to his jaw. He went out to the quiet room and is sitting for at least a week, but word in the press box was that it might be much longer. Nobody has said concussion, though everyone’s talked around it. He is mandated not to come back for seven days, which is the concussion protocol. Of course, with this injury, it’s impossible to tell. Witness Crosby.
In their absence, the Kings reverted to the form they’ve been in in days past, at least as far as their lineup went. The first line was Gagne, Kopitar, and Brown, restored to his natural right wing. The second unit featured the trio of Justin Williams, Stoll, and Penner.
This group has to be one crucial part of the team’s ability to win without Richards. Penner is off of IR after having missed nine games with an injury to his hand. He has received nothing but criticism since he got to LA, first from the Edmonton fans he left behind, then from those new fans he inherited with he returned to SoCal. (He was here with Anaheim, you’ll recall).
Last year, people cut him slack because he was off to a new start. This year, he got some rope early because he came into the season in better shape than he’s been in before. He still failed to produce at all, going goalless in fourteen games before his injury and notching just two assists in that time while on the ice for about 15 minutes per game.
On the fourth line were Clifford, center Colin Fraser and Ethan Moreau. This of course meant that Kevin Westgarth was scratched, but looking at Moreau in the room after the game Monday night, it came to me that there’s no way you’re going to mess around with a Kings player when both he and Kyle Clifford are staring you down from the bench.
Who got missed? The third line, on this afternoon Brad Richardson, who had been scratched for five straight games, along with Trent Hunter and Andrei Loktionov. Loktionov is the speedy center of the line, though Richardson is also listed with a “C” next to his name and often takes draws or centers a line depending upon who he’s playing with. Some observers wondered why he had sat out since playing November 19th versus Detroit. He’s not intimidated by anyone, though he’s not a big guy. You sometimes don’t notice him on the ice, but what you never see from him is a bad play or a bad game. He’s Terry Murray’s kind of player—consistent, not flashy. Odd that he sometimes becomes the odd man out when the lineup shifts.
What’s got to happen for the team to win with this lineup? First, the group as it is currently constructed has to play a gritty game. Richards, even for being with the team just half a season, had started to make a stamp. His 20 penalty minutes told the tale to a degree, as he isn’t afraid to fight. Dustin Brown, always the league’s best hitter or nearly so, has changed his game, to my eye. Perhaps it’s the luxury of having Richards in the lineup, but he is hitting less and skating more.
And he’s fast. Faster than most fans realize. When he grabs a loose puck and turns it back up ice, he’s likely to be at the other team’s blueline before his linemates. The question is, does he revert to his hitting game or keep playing for speed, assuming it’s fair to ask for one or the other?
Sitting out amongst the forwards, aside from Westgarth, just Trevor Lewis. He had played 19 games with an assist the only notch on his scoring belt.
The defense looked like this in the absence of Mitchell: Slava Voynov and Jack Johnson were together. Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi were a pair, and that left Greene with Davis Drewiske. The latter has been sitting, a lot. He last played on October 15th, and he hasn’t played since. It was his only game of the year. In his return, he got just shy of ten minutes of time on the ice, blocking two shots, and was solid in the third period particularly against Montreal’s buzzing line of Kostitsyn and company.
But back to the team’s needs. The Kings have to shoot and score. They’re not doing a lot of the latter despite not playing too badly and being sixth in the West coming into the weekend. They have scored fewer goals than anyone in the West down to the 13th place team. Their strong suit has been that they haven’t allowed a whole lot, either, notably fewer than all but two teams in the conference, those teams who bracket them in the standings, St. Louis and San Jose.
Again after Saturday’s game, Coach Murray addressed this issue: “It’s harder to [say the team needs to shoot more] in there [locker room] than in here. Looking at these players, we’re talking about it every day in practice. It’s a, every game it’s a statement that’s been consistent in the first period, pucks to the net.” The problem is, oftentimes it goes only that far. Murray let it out that the team has a self-generated plan for addressing the issue, explaining that “today was the start of a new segment, our own deal that we have in the locker room, that was one criteria that we drafted. It’s got to get better.”
Then he told the real truth: “At the end of the day, again, we end up with six shots in the third period, a critical time in a 2-1 game, and that’s when you need a mentality that, we really need to be loading up in front of the net. We’ve got to get a dozen shots, fifteen shots in a game like tonight.” Somehow, they won’t or can’t do this.
Another key to LA victory is that their backup goalie, who has to start getting some games, has to be close to as good as their starter. On this afternoon versus Montreal, Jonathan Bernier was not tested early, but in the last two minutes of the first, Montreal had a power play. Everything was going LA’s way until Matt Greene tried to clear a guy (Andrei Kostitsyn) from the front of the net. As he did that, Bernier overplayed a rebound by drifting on his knees way too far to his right.
In the slot, Plekanec shot back across the grain to the right side as he faced the net, and it eluded the crowd in front and the goaltender.
The second Montreal goal, scored midway through the second period and with the shots nearly even at 18-16 in LA’s favor after the home team had outshot the visitors 14-5 in the first frame, was the fault of a blown tire by Greene at the Montreal blueline.
Down the ice came three Montreal players, for all the world resembling Lafleur and his teammates of the late 1970s—flying. The puck went from Louis Leblanc across to Kostitsyn. He zipped it back halfway, to Lars Eller. He one-timed it back to Kostitsyn, who one-timed it past Bernier. A goal you can fault the goalie on? It was from pretty far out, but no way.
Bernier’s numbers this year in four games show him winning two and losing two coming into Saturday. He has a plus-three GAA and a save percentage below .890. Not stellar. On the other hand, he could argue that he’s not playing enough to be sharp, and he’d have a point.
It was Leblanc’s first NHL point, and he was happy to say after to IH that “I got the call, I think it was last Monday or Tuesday. I wasn’t expecting anything. I was fortunate enough to play all three games, and I think every game I got better and better. Tonight I was fortunate to get my first NHL point. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and Monday and see what happens, hopefully to stick around so that I have another game to show what I have.”
He also mentioned that he has a puck from his first game the other night in Anaheim. “Every guy is fortunate to wear this jersey. There’s a lot of pride.”
If there’s good news to come from this game from the home team’s point of view, it was that Penner finally got on the board with a goal. It was on the power play, the classic simple play. Doughty took a soft wrister from inside the blueline with Penner in front. He got a stick on it with his back to the net and redirected it past Price low.
It wasn’t the first time the two were in close proximity, or the last. In the middle of the frame, Penner ran over Price in the Montreal net and earned himself a penalty.
His goal came at 13:46 of the second, and it would end the scoring on the day. The third period saw the Kings get a man advantage late but give it back just a minute later, and the aforementioned six shots on goal to nine for the Habs.
One sign of life came from the Kings’ Simon Gagne. He isn’t performing as far under par as the rest of the forwards, with 15 points thus far, but he doesn’t have a goal since mid-November. But against Montreal, he made some excellent offensive plays including one where he took the puck across the slot and shot it up over the goaltender, only to hit the crossbar.
It was this play that Murray used to put the game in perspective. “He hit the crossbar in the third period. Would have been a huge goal to tie the game up. He is a guy who can give us some good numbers. He’s a very skilled player. He plays a top end game. He can make the right play at the right time. I saw that here today, just hit the post, hit the crossbar you know. I think next time he puts that in, it’s a tie game.
A good sign for what’s to come is that Murray goes with his gut and plays who he thinks is doing well—at one point in the third period, his first power play unit was Penner, Williams, and Hunter. We documented here at IH a week or so ago that Hunter is a guy who can turn up chances, but he’s not a finisher. Still, Murray has to be commended for his initiative.
The team will take Sunday off before an easy road trip to Anaheim on Tuesday evening. Easy in terms of travel, but perhaps not easy in terms of the game. The Ducks have a game Sunday, but if they lose it, that’s two in a row for the new coach, and they’ll be gunning.
Nice that the Canadian anthem was sung. Bad choice that it was all in French. It’s a bilingual country, friends, and that includes Quebec.
Brian’s on CJAD radio in Montreal at 1:30 Sunday afternoon for a half hour. Catch the show to hear him talk about his new book, My Country Is Hockey.