It’s hard to tell if the feeling amongst LA hockey fans in advance of game three is anticipation, or dread. That’s the curse of the winner.
In the old days, the Kings and their fans would be thrilled coming home in round three, down two games to none or not. It would have been enough just to be there. Cue video of San Jose Sharks now, and you’ll get what I mean.
But this team, as announced by the now-departed Tim Lieweke at the start of the year, was kept together at an effort and had one goal—to win another Cup. That’s looking less likely than it was even a couple of days ago, at least statistically.
More than statistically, in fact. The issues aren’t just the odds of climbing out of a 0-2 hole and beating the Chicago Blackhawks in four of five games, at least once in their building. They are overcoming the problems which have the team on the losing side in the first place.
Number one, though easily dismissed—Jonathan Quick’s game two loss. The goalie, as everyone knows, was pulled for the first time in two playoff seasons. Jonathan Bernier now actually has recorded some playing time, perhaps a good thing for him if the team does rally to eventually win another Stanley Cup. But on Quick’s loss—it’s possible to rationalize it a “so what”? He wasn’t awful, though he did look tired. No wonder, as he’d had to play like a demon the night before just to keep the Kings close. And in game two, he might have been a fraction off on one goal, but he wasn’t awful, and nothing that he let in made him, or his teammates, stare at the ceiling wondering what the hockey gods were up to.
Plus, news reports had him sitting patiently waiting to answer questions after the game, despite the dressing room being mostly empty. It speaks to his character, but also to the fact that he’s able to put the game behind him. He’ll likely be better in game three, assuming he gets the start. And there’s no reason to think otherwise.
Number two, not so easily cast aside, is the loss of Mike Richards. Media reports say that he was not on the ice for the morning skate at Staples Center Tuesday, though it must be noted that the skate was optional. But if he’s healthy, one might expect that he’d be there, given the fact that he might want to get his legs under him after missing Game 2.
Richards isn’t just good as a center, on the draws. At his best, he’s a presence. He’s too good to be labelled a pest on the ice, a term usually reserved for fourth-liners who exist to hit and hound and turn up loose pucks. But he’s got that quality, and the irony of his departure after a hit at the buzzer Saturday is that he played a big game that night. It was one of those evenings when, no matter whether you were trying or not, you noticed him out there, shift after shift.
Number three, the real problem, is that the Kings aren’t scoring. This refrain is so old it stands with the Beatles’ classics as a familiar tune. (That’s not actually so, even if the Kings were born in the same summer as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) In fact, it’s just since Terry Murray and Quick intersected on the team that the refrain has been, “score one goal, expect a shutout.” Unofficially, of course.
But that’s the problem. The Kings don’t score. They win close games. Or lose them. And the rationale, up until now, has been, “look who we’re playing.” St. Louis played like that. The Kings forced the Sharks to do it too. I for one thought they could get Chicago squeezed into the same mold.
Looking at the regular season, no matter how much coaches say it does not pertain, should have been instructive or corrective on that regard. These two teams played three times, and they combined for 21 goals. Each team scored five goals on one occasion. Neither team had less than two goals in any one game. And only one game ended 3-2, the middle one. The Kings were on the losing end.
What’s the message? That Chicago is going to score and force you to score if you want to win. The Kings managed to do that during the 48-game campaign, though on the losing end of a 1-2 record in the regular season to the Blackhawks.
The problem is, while the Kings have been, according to Dustin Brown, watching video to see what they could execute better, Brad Richardson said this to John Hoven: “Our game is forechecking and getting physical, not trying to play the run-and-gun like they play” Tuesday morning, according to Hoven’s article at www.mayorsmanor.com.
What the player is saying might be translated to this: When you play the Kings, you play our style. That was true against the Blues, though as Coach Sutter said back then, these were two teams who played essentially the same way to start with. The Kings got the Sharks to play their way, too, slowing down their big guns and, on Quick’s part, frustrating players, none more than Logan Couture.
But what Richardson doesn’t realize, though hopefully his coaches do, is that you’re not going to slow Chicago down. Sure, the Kings might manage to neutralize the long breakout passes which Chicago uses in the way the Ducks do. But they’re probably not going to get them into a tight puck possession game where every pass seems like it’s three feet rather than ten or twenty. And it’s not just “team speed,” to cite an oft-used term, that’s going to prevent this from happening. It’s will and smarts. The Hawks have had their scare, against Detroit. They’ve had their moment of awakening, the one which every President’s Trophy team has or dive-bombs for the lack of. They realize that they can’t just expect to have other teams play their way.
They have to force it by making it impossible for other teams to do otherwise. And that’s what they’ve done with, or to, the LA King so far.
So with the people on Twitter already saying things like, “What are the Kings going to do when they’re so hurt?” and “Kopitar and Brown are playing like they’re injured,” the Kings must figure out a way to deal with Chicago’s pressure on the forecheck. They need to find a way to get the puck in the offensive end and keep it there, but do so without the endless cycle, which is their strength and something the Hawks seem able to disrupt before quickly moving the puck the other way.
And they’ve got to score on the power play. But therein might lie the good news. As everyone knows, the Hawks are in record territory with the PK, but as has been said, by Sutter and others, averages usually even out.
A few years ago, the Kings beat Vancouver by scoring goal after goal on the PP. At the time, it seemed like an incredible run of good fortune. Maybe it was just the numbers coming back to LA. Oddsmakers might have weighed in on the matter this year, or maybe not, but whatever the case, it’s time, again, for the numbers to even out, and you’d almost expect something like a three-power-play-goals night for the Kings somewhere along the line. They started the ball rolling, maybe, with their second and final goal Sunday, a PP marker off of Tyler Toffoli’s stick.
If nothing else, they’re doing it differently than they did in their 10-1 at home, 16-4 romp of last spring. Getting back in the series means winning Tuesday night rather than reprising the way their season began, when they raised their banner, got their rings, and then dropped a 5-2 loss to Chicago.
As Justin Williams said in a media event Monday, “It’s not do-or-die tomorrow, but it is.” Everyone in hockey knows how grim the chances of coming back from 0-3, not least, the LA Kings.
Media articles were consulted in writing this story.
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