Missing Up the Middle

What do you do without Jeff Carter? It’s a question the Kings are asking this week after losing their star center on Wednesday night due to a lower body injury (ankle is the word, and he had a boot on after Saturday’s game). The trouble is that while the team has a decent record at 9-5-0 coming into Saturday night against Nashville, they haven’t been getting a lot of production from their middle icemen. The goal totals when Carter went out included five of his and just four from four other players. More accurately, none from two men listed as centers (Lewis and Fraser) and two each from the two others (Richards and Kopitar).

The team’s goal total, to put that into perspective, stood at 40 for and 36 against. In the West where they play, the numbers range from 38 for and just 18 against for the leaders, Colorado, to 51-24 for second-place San Jose, to 36 for and 54 against for cellar-dwellers Edmonton.

Nobody says you’ve got to score as much as the Sharks, but the for-against differential usually tells the story, and the Kings at plus-ten percent were the weakest of the top eight other than Phoenix. No team in the bottom six had a plus number, though the Wild, in ninth coming into Saturday, were exactly even at 34-34. (Who says Wild hockey has changed over the years—they score little, they let in few. Good thing the people in Minnesota are hockey fans in the pure sense.)

But back to the LA situation. Carter, because in some ways he was carrying the ball, at least in terms of goal production, was more visible than not most nights. This was not just on the ice, but in the room as well. His contribution as a leader probably has something to do with his aw-shucks Canadian-ness, a shyness that’s somehow compelling. It’s a stretch to start putting him into big categories, but he reminds me a little bit of what I think Gordie Howe must have been like—shy and retiring off the ice, but fiercely competitive on it.

So what do the Kings do with him on IR (which he is on, though the handout the club gave to the press Saturday night did not indicate that officially)? Well, juggle lines, for one thing. Their first trio had been Carter with Richards and Daniel Carcillo. Without Carter available, the lines were all over the place Saturday night. One way to make sense of it is to say that Richards played with a hodgepodge of guys. Early it was King and Toffoli, who was in his first game of the year. His time in Manchester of the AHL has been productive, with seven goals and 12 points in ten games to start the season.

In his next go-round, Richards found himself with King and Brown. In period two, it was Toffoli and Carcillo. Later, the third member changed to Clifford. Trying to figure out the lines much past that was next to impossible. One thing to note was that Brown seemed to work himself down the lineup as the night wore on. He began with Lewis and Stoll on what is arguably line three. By period two, he was the frequent partner of Lewis and Clifford, but was also seen with Lewis and Matt Frattin quite a number of times. Is there a message there? He played in the third period with Kopitar and Williams, a seeming upgrade on where he’d started. But when Sutter was asked about it, he pointed to the fact that they’d lost Stoll early on (first period). “Third period there, we were short of guys. . . . He’s the one guy who can go both sides.” Damning with praise so faint as to be inaudible, to take a common phrase further.

To summarize the matter of centers and lines, try this: King was with Kopitar and Williams. That was as it has been. The second line was the Richards trios. The third the Brown groups, and the leftovers were Toffoli, Lewis, and Clifford, though as I’ve said, almost anyone could be with anyone on this evening.

One thing the Kings centers did not do very well was defend. The Nashville third goal, for instance, came out of the corner off Paul Gaustad’s stick to Patric Hornqvist, who put it into the slot. Kopitar was pinching down, and the puck went off his stick in the crease area and right out to Eric Nystrom in the mid-slot area. He fired it past Quick with Justin Williams caught between covering him and not.

The goal prior to that was a three-way pass which came off the wall on the power play. Fisher put it to Hornqvist to Shea Weber at the right side of the net mid-slot. Brown let it go under his stick to get there, and there was nobody to cover Weber. Granted, the LA team was a man short at the time.

The third period, which began with the Kings down 3-1 and the shots standing at 24-11 for LA, was a thrill ride for LA fans. Their team tied the score on two goals that came close together. The first was by Brown, playing as he did most of the third with Kopitar and Williams. He skated backwards at the left boards and flipped a puck toward the net and in. Before that could be announced, the Kings had a power play and scored again. It was thus tied at 11:18 of the period, 3-3.

The Kings would lose the game on a final goal scored with about four minutes left. They lost a faceoff at even strength and saw that puck go back to the point and come in hard. It went off Quick’s leg and right to Legwand. He whacked it right into the net. The Kings Doughty was the closest man to him, but the rebound came so fast that it was impossible to do anything. The mistake on the defenseman’s part was in letting Legwand get in behind him in the first place.

After the game, the Nashville player said, “We were able to get the puck to the middle of the ice and get shots. It’s great, and we gave up the lead in the third but we bounced back.” He also pointed out that they did well in Phoenix and got only one point, but that they deserve more if they play as they did on this night. The only trouble was their shot total, but he said that “Shots are shots and chances are chances,” meaning, it seems, that the latter is what matters more.

Sutter on his side of things was critical of Greene and Mitchell for two of the goals. “Obviously, we may have to think about using different penalty killers,” he commented. When asked about the details, he said, “We kill similar to a lot of other teams, but when there’s one guy breaking down, it tends to, you know . . . . You need the goaltender too.”

But none of the three goals could be charged to Quick. Every one was the result of a defensive or coverage breakdown. So count that three under the bus wheels and Brown to make an even four.

What happens in the next few days? The Kings are off until Thursday, but they’re not likely to get a lot of rest. Not after this performance.

Kings Notes

The team doesn’t play for five days. Buffalo comes in for the Thursday evening game. By then, the team should have been drilled and skilled to the point of a near-death experience.

Nashville Notes

Odd indeed to note the names of the two Preds goalies on this evening. Carter Hutton (isn’t that an investment firm?) played the pipes, and Magnus Hellberg was his understudy.

I had the pleasure of meeting Pete Weber, the Preds longtime broadcaster, at morning skate. He was kind enough to ask me about my work, and genuinely interested to hear about what I’m writing. Good guy.

Twitter: @growinguphockey.

My new book, a novel called Pond Hockey, is out now.

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