Sun Tsu said it plainly thousands of years ago: “If you do not know the plans of your competitors, you cannot make informed alliances.” We’ll assume for the moment that by alliances he meant plans, and in that spirit, I offer you the inside truth about what the Blues have in mind to defeat their enemy, the LA Kings. The Kings could, I suggest, turn these things around and use them as their keys to victory, because as the great philosopher also suggested that a leader “Give out directions that are not in the code” as a way to motivate his warriors.
Despite the fact that the games have been low-scoring, St. Louis wants to stick to the defensive style they’ve used all year. Player after player IH spoke with on Monday morning said so.
Jay Bouwmeester commented, “You know they’re going to come, make a big push at the start of the game. But get back, that’s more important than anything else. We thought coming into the series that goals might be a little bit hard to come by, both ways.”
Andy McDonald said the same, indicating, “It’s a low-scoring series but that’s how we’ve played all year. You can’t vary it, so we’ll just stick to the formula and stick to the structure.” When IH asked him about coming up with a magic formula to score more, he chuckled, and said, “It’s about winning the game, and you know, I think when [Hitchcock] came in last year, he put a defensive structure in place that you need everyone to buy into, so definitely, you have to be part of the program and realize that when we’re playing well, we’re strong defensively. Don’t give up much, and don’t sacrifice any part of defense to score goals. We have enough talent in here to score one or two, and don’t change anything defensively.
“Even in the offensive zone, have a third guy high. You’re two hundred feet from your net, and you’re still playing defense. We’re always thinking defense; it’s a priority,” he finished.
So their first element: stick with defense.
But Ryan Reaves did leave a crack in the door the Kings might want to know about. “I think we can always shoot more,” he said, “You look at the last couple of games, we’ve missed a lot of open nets.”
The same clue came up in what TJ Oshie said, which was later repeated by his coach, Ken Hitchcock, “Last two games, three or four golden scoring opportunities rolled off the stick, or someone got a stick on them but Quick wasn’t there, so I think we’re getting inside enough, I just think it comes down to guys bearing down and burying it.”
Hitchcock’s way of saying that was, “I guess we lament the no-brainers, the three no-brainers we had in the first period. That’s tough. It comes back to haunt you. I think when you miss those, the players become discouraged. . . . You’re still talking after the game about the three chances where the goalie wasn’t in the net that we missed.” Not only then, but, apparently, all the way to Monday.
The second element: finish, but don’t think about what happened when you didn’t.
Despite the temptation out there in the air because of the Ottawa-Montreal series, the Blues do not want to let the series get more physical than it has been. Ryan Reaves told me, “We have a pretty big team, all four lines, each has at least one guy with some size. And even the smaller guys, they lead the team in hits this year. They’re so strong on their skates. Whether it’s the actual size, our whole team plays huge.”
So do they want to play like that series back east? “I think it’s clean hockey,” Reaves said, “Our series, it’s a one-goal game each time so far, so nobody wants to take that extra penalty that might jeapordize that lead if we have it. I wouldn’t say it’s the cleanest hockey, but it’s not a brawl like everybody thought it was going to be.”
But just before I spoke with him, he said to another reporter, “It wears on somebody when you get in those big licks in game one and two. By games four and five, he’s thinking about it, hearing those footsteps. I want those guys to hate to see when I have a shift, and to know that I’m coming.”
The third element: take the physical right to the line, but not over.
The club also wants to adjust their power play, though they won’t say how. Hitchcock would only comment that he would change things “a little bit, which I’m not going to say anything to you about”. He also said, “A lot of teams want to simplify the game, make it more north-south as series go on. This is a time when you can really complicate it with the players,” and that’s precisely what he is not going to do. “You can really clog people’s heads up by giving them too much information” in the meetings held to discuss strategy and go over video.
So element number four: change the PP. How? Well, Tsu said know the plans of others, not reveal your own.
And finally, something more specific: The Sobotka line, according to Hitchcock, is playing “Too spread out. Too much one-on-one. Not enough close support. . . . They’re looking to create offense way too quickly. We talked about better puck support, better coming to the rescue of the puck carrier.”
Element five: get that line closer to one another, passing and helping out when not having the puck.
Each of these elements, turned on its head, tells the Kings exactly what the need to do. Namely, they need to break it open, get St. Louis second-guessing themselves, not respond to the hits, stymie the power play, and keep Sobotka and mates spread out.
Hitchcock seems to be enjoying the process. He said one key was that “You just try to keep your spirit and your energy up out there,” and he described the series as being “ice by the inch, and you’ve got to find a way to fight through it. If you’re looking for space out there, you ain’t going to find it.”
Here’s another bit of wisdom from Sun Tsu: “Those whose words are humble while they increase war preparations are going to advance.” This, frankly, should scare Kings fans. Ken Hitchcock has never, in my experience, been known to be a particularly humble man. He’s had success. He’s proud of it. He generally controls the mic, and when he’s done in his press conferences, he just walks away, on his timing.
Monday morning, he was all smiles. He took a lot of questions. He responded with considered answers, and with detail. No cliches, and lots of specifics.
His steady-as-she-goes method has worked, with his team ahead 2-1. But not changing strategies is also a recipe for disaster.
Kelly Hrudey is in town to broadcast the games, you Kings fans. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll run into him on the way into Staples.