Kings Force Chicago to Play Their Way

Buy your tickets now for Game 5 of the Western Conference playoffs, Chicago-area fans. And LA fans, you might think about putting in a bid for Game 6. That latter will be true if the Kings can continue to do what they did Tuesday, which was prescribed here before the game. In a simple sentence: The Kings had to get Chicago to play their way. Slowly. Deliberately. Without stretching the ice.

It would seem a hard task, but LA accomplished it in working to a 3-1 win. The last goal was into an empty net.

They did it with just a couple of touches of change in their lineup, namely adding Jake Muzzin in and removing Alec Martinez; and shifting Stoll from a line with Lewis and King up to the first line, with Brown and Williams. Coach Sutter said after the game that the advantage of this was that it allowed him a good match-up with Kopitar playing alongside Lewis and King. The only trouble with that theory was that the line did nothing, registering just one shot, by Lewis. Kopitar got 21 minutes, Lewis about 18, and King over 16, but this can partly be accounted for by Kopitar’s power play time, more than five minutes.

The goal for LA against the Blackhawks was to slow down the play, and they did that most of the night. The visitors were not able to make much of their passing game. Sutter commented after, “It’s tough to limit the opposition because of the guys they have, especially their big lines,” and he said that neither team was playing on a full tank due to the three-games-in-four-nights situation.

The Kings disrupted the play, forcing Kane and Toews almost into invisibility, though they had five shots between them. They just didn’t get to handle the puck much. The Kings did this not by Velcro checking, but by always being nearby when they had the puck. There was never anywhere to pass it, no lane. And there were no angles for putting it off the boards. This was the result of the LA forwards playing the defensive end of the game.

Seeing no offensive options, the Chicago forwards would end up forcing something, and LA would then take the puck back up-ice, but one noticeable Chicago tactic was their ability to close down the middle with amazing speed. Just to cite one instance, at the end of period one, Hossa and Toews collapsed onto Drew Doughty in a split second. There’s not much that you can do about this, and while Doughty was visible carrying the puck all night, the Blackhawks will likely adjust on this before game four, emphasizing that pinching movement even more to keep the Kings from gathering speed out of the own zone.

The Kings also limited Chicago’s chances by huge defense. No one played a bigger game than Matt Greene. He was over the line a few times, once cross-checking a Chicago player in the back, but he got away with it. He also stood up Nick Leddy at the blueline in front of the Kings’ bench in the final period, a hit which stopped the Chicago player cold. Greene also played offense, picking a puck up off the boards in period one, for instance, and taking an immediate shot on net.

To further analyze the LA game, it would be crucial to look at their defense corp’s aggressiveness. This was especially a feature of the PK, particularly in the corners.

So that was the shutdown part of the LA game. For offense, things clicked, but when you factor out the empty net goal, a 2-1 score isn’t exactly an offensive explosion. More like right on average for this team. Why? At times, the Kings were somewhat reluctant to shoot. Carter broke into the offensive zone with the puck in the third, for example, and instead of driving to the net or shooting, he passed back to Toffoli, who took a slapshot that was easily stopped.

If shots taken are a measure of effectiveness, this game went back and forth early, with LA dominating later on. Late in the first with LA leading 1-0, they were down to Chicago in shots, 7-5. But they ended the period up 8-7. Chicago then put its sticks away, firing just three in period two. In the third, they got ten, to LA’s 11. If there was a weakness for LA, it was that while they took a lot of shots, 28 on the night to the Hawks’ 20, many of them went into Crawford’s belly. He would swallow them up, happily take the faceoff, and the visitors would try to win those. They were largely unsuccessful, taking just 41 percent on the evening, but the point is that the Kings have to find ways to take more effective shots on this goalie.

The second period was nicely rolling along 2-0 for LA when Chicago scored on just its third shot of the frame. It was a late-period wraparound by Bickell which could have suggested a change in course for the game.

This because the play was the kind that you often see Chicago make when they’re playing their game. The faceoff was won ahead toward the right corner by Toews. Hossa than turned it into the corner deeper, and while a Kings player touched it, it went to Bickell, who caught the Kings asleep, wheeled around the net and out front, and put it under Quick. It was a moment that could have defined the game, shrinking the lead by half, and this after the Kings had killed a penalty and shut the Hawks down all period.

After, goalie Quick critiqued his play on that goal. “I didn’t like the goal I gave up, and there are some things I’d like to clean up for the next game.” In truth, he was excellent, though with very little work in period two, as noted.

Maybe a measure of Chicago’s containment by the LA team was that they changed styles altogether in period three. At home on the weekend, they played a high-tempo passing game. However, in period three on Tuesday, they started to play along the LA goalline. The idea seemed to be to feed pucks to the crease. Trouble was, most of them went to and through there, with one good chance happening when the Hossa took the puck directly off King Rob Scuderi’s stick, fed it across the crease, and saw it go wide. It was the third or fourth time that the puck was a foot from Quick with two or three guys, his own and his opposition’s, directly in front of him. On the most dangerous of these, Quick made the save of the game.

He was reluctant to take credit for it, though he stoned Bickell and saved the victory. The puck came to the front of the net and the young Chicago player had a fast shot. Quick can take it from there: “On the initial shot I kind of got bumped a little, got a little off-angle and didn’t put the rebound where I wanted to. It ended up on his stick, and you just try to cover net. Just fortunately it was a blocker save. It was a big save at the time, but maybe something of a lucky save. I saw it all the way, but he’s in tight, so you don’t have much time to react.”

The Kings played with fire a little bit in the late going, because they did not clear the puck hard enough out of their end. Defenseman Robyn Regehr said, “We find that we get into problems when we get stretched out too much. Guys are trying for those home run plays, homers, and against a very good transition team, like Chicago, they’re going to make you pay.” The opposite is strong, sure clears, and when the Kings did not do that, Chicago was always on the puck. What that says is that the Kings can force Chicago to play its game, but they can’t deviate from the plan even for a minute if they hope to win.

For his part, Darryl Sutter doesn’t buy the line that his team lacks speed. “We’re not a slow team, and we were coming off a good game,” he said, “And we had another one tonight.”

Regehr said, “We have a way that we need to play, and we do a heck of a good job of it at home, and not as good a job of it on the road. . . . All we’re doing is approaching the next game exactly the same way we approached this game. We need to continue to play well at home.” Doing so, in the form of winning again Thursday night, will ensure that the series gets at least to game six, which would be, of course, played in LA.

Kings Notes

The Blackhawks eventually spent twelve minutes in the penalty box, the Kings six. Part of Chicago’s time was four minutes to Duncan Keith for rearranging Jeff Carter’s smile. The play was a retaliation for a slash Carter had put on the Hawks’ defenseman. The Kings were unable to score on it, and in fact had only one shot the whole time. Nor did they score on any other chance (one minor for each team being coincidental). So Chicago’s numbers continue to be lights-out.

Some observers believe that Duncan Keith should be suspended for his retaliatory high stick on Carter.

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