When you get to a certain age, and you answer the phone, people who know both you and your father (if you’re a guy) sometimes say, “Oh, I thought that was your dad on the phone.” What they’re saying, in another set of words, is, “Here you are, getting a glimpse of your future.” Hopefully, you don’t go away from the encounter saying, “That’s not pretty.”
In real life, sometimes the future is not something to look forward to. So it is with the LA Kings. If they get unstuck from the current nearly no-goals drought that they’re in, and if they start to win some games, they’re going to make the playoffs. When they get there, before they ever get to the place where they challenge for another Stanley Cup, they’re going to have to play the Chicago Blackhawks. When they do, it’s going to be trouble.
Not that they won’t have any chance, because on Monday night, LA fought back from 2-0 down and a handful (four) of minor penalties in the first period to come within a goal after twenty and then to tie things up not quite midway through the second period.
The goal that did that was perhaps one that’s been a long time coming. It came on a three-man break with Toffoli on the left side, Carter in the middle, and Kopitar on the right. The pass came left to right and Kopitar had it go off his stick and bloop up and over the netminder (Corey Crawford) and go in. He was smiling standing at the front of the bench after the play.
It was about freaking time, because they haven’t had a break like this in weeks, it seems. In fact, in the six games prior to this one, they had scored only three goals. And all of them had been scored by Kopitar. That’s not a bad thing, since you expect him to score, but it also tells you something—not one goal came from the D on a screen. None squibbed in from the slot. No fourth-liner managed to get his third of the season on some kind of lapse in defensive coverage. And no junk was coming LA’s way. So this one pretty as it was and lucky as well, was long due.
But what was more important than that was the fact that the effort that the Kings put into getting to the point where they could tie it was impressive. This was no weak period, the second frame.
In fact, opposition coach Quenneville mentioned it after the game. “They had a run early in the second, a lot of momentum, and some good chances.”
The teams had finished the first with the shots looking distinctly in Chicago’s favor, 12-5. And the first two goals, which had been scored before nine minutes were gone, gave the crowd that pull-the-goalie feeling to the point that the building was buzzing. Whoever controls the scoreboard even put up a video of Sutter, which is the sign that at least someone thinks that he or she knows what Sutter’s got on his mind. (Though for the record please note that he’s not a goalie-pulling kind of guy, and he’s said that more than once in post-game press conferences.)
The second period was essentially all Kings, with the shots unbalanced in LA’s favor, 15-7. Even after they tied the game, they pressed. Williams got a pass trailing the play, but he took too long to get off a shot and had a body get in the way of the puck.
Coach Sutter also talked about this part of the game. “We battled back against the Stanley Cup champions down 2-0.”
At the point where the game became tied, the Chicago coach decided that he need to get his players’ minds back in the game, and he took his timeout. It didn’t change much, as the Kings continued to push after this point. Drew Doughty hit the post from the point on a slapshot blast.
Minutes went by, and still the Kings held the balance of the play. They got a power play, and the puck went from Jake Muzzin to Brown right in front. He slammed a shot that was saved. Not to worry, the thought was—they’ve got this. They’ve found their game again. Things will go the Kings’ way.
And of course, right at that moment, Chicago scored again. It came off a point shot that was deflected twice, once by a Kings player, and once by Marcus Kruger, who stood in the mid-slot. It went around Quick somehow.
The problem is that even in the brief hints that the Blackhawks gave of being interested in the play, they were terribly dangerous. Perhaps the best save of the night, or the week in the NHL, came when Sharp broke in alone on Quick from the blueline. He deked and went to his backhand, and the puck was going in, but for the leg pad that the netminder stuck out. He only did this because, as has been referenced here many times, he can do an explosively fast full splits.
In the last two minutes of the period, the Chicago group pressed more, with another shot-rebound combination that Quick snagged with his glove. It was as if they’d decided that having gone up 3-2, they would now put things away. That they didn’t was entirely Quick’s doing.
The third period, then, was going to be the test. Would the Kings keep pressing? Would Chicago go back to being disinterested, know that in any one moment when they made the decision to do so, they could take back over?
And in the far reaches of one’s mind a further question—if this is how they play now, in the doldrums of February, what are they going to be like in April, or May?
The Kings pressed as the third period opened. A cross-ice pass found Matt Frattin, but he waited too long to shoot, and Crawford was able to make a fairly easy save. Chicago scored a fourth goal to make it look like they would pull away, and then a fifth on a play that saw Sharp go around Willie Mitchell far too easily on the right boards and put the puck across to Kane for a tap-in. But then LA got one back on the very next faceoff, a wraparound by an aggressive Jeff Carter that ended up in front of a net off a defenseman’s skate and was slammed in by Toffoli to break into double figures on the year in goals, with 10.
The quite partisan Chicago crowd stayed until the end despite the score, while the Kings supporters tried to drown out their cheers to little avail. Even Quenneville commented after the game that he had noticed a distinctly Blackhawk-leaning crowd.
Perhaps one way to look at the somewhat lopsided nature of the game is this. The Kings have a couple of great players, namely Carter and Kopitar. And most of the time, they play a great game, with puck possession their mantra. But the Hawks have a handful of great players, namely Kane, Toews, Sharp, and Hossa (for both sides, defensemen excluded), and that’s just a couple too many to contain.
The result is that the Blackhawks wheel and whirl with the puck as they wish. The Kings can’t.
“We’re as close to winning as we are to losing,” Sutter said. “That’s how I look at it.” For stretches on Monday night, he was right. In the end, he had a boatload of guys who couldn’t measure up. “They’re four lines deep and we’re two,” he said. “When you’re struggling to score, you’re trying to find a little bit of continuity or guys who are able to sustain it together. So you know what? Tyler has moved over to that side [wing] and done a good job with Jeff and Kopi.”
He wouldn’t say which of his veterans (Brown, Richards) are the ones not doing what they need to, but he got close. “There’s a handful of guys that you have to coach up, but at the same time, they’re not young guys. They’re veterans,” he said, “Guys who are having a hard time right now. Whether it’s the schedule or what they have to deal with in their own games.”
The question lingering is whether it’s their games or his strategies that are failing, but in measured parts of this game, at least, he seemed to have turned them loose. The result? That they hung on better than they might have. But not long enough to win.
Scratches were Martinez, Schultz, and Nolan.
Toffoli was noted on post-game broadcasts to have had a good game.
My novel Pond Hockey should keep you entertained when you’re bored. Please read it.