It was a game the Los Angeles Kings almost didn’t mind losing. Not to say that they didn’t care. Just the opposite. They came out with firepower and determination against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Staples Center Saturday night. They also came out short after a shootout, but the time between the first puck drop and the end was anything but bad. The game, instead, showed several important things about the club.
First, the team showed that it can play a mobile offensive game. Too many times of late, the Kings have passively waited for play to come to them, or they’ve gotten across the opponent’s blueline and no further. Against the Pens, they attacked with pressure, often moving the puck down low for chances. On the night, Mike Richards had four shots, and that doesn’t count the crossbar he hit after beating Marc Andre Fleury from the left of the net in the second period.
One failing in this regard was on the power play, particularly a five-on-three where there was too much standing around and holding the puck. On two Pittsburgh minors, one after the other including the five-on-three time, the Kings had just one shot. There were other sequences, however, which will never be seen in the stats, but which were within a whisker of a goal. Williams broke to the Pittsburgh end and had Kyle Clifford on the doorstep, but he couldn’t slam it in. In the third, Williams passed the puck to Simon Gagne, then to Kopitar, and it ended up bouncing over Kopitar’s stick in front of the net.
In the second as well, Richards trailed the play and got a slaps hot high on Fleury, then later, came off the boards on the left side of the ice after coming from behind the net. He wheeled to the left dot and stung a wrister. Fleury made a flash glove save. Richards was hauled down on a shorthanded breakaway in period three, and got a penalty shot. He missed, the sixth time (out of six) that he has done so in his career. Why not give the team the option of a minor penalty? It would have evened things up, a trade the Kings likely would have liked. Both goalies were terrific, incidentally, Quick needing to be early, Fleury later.
Anze Kopitar also showed his best on the night, scoring a goal and assisting on the second one. He said after the game, “The outcome wasn’t the way we wanted it to be, but I think our game overall was much better than it was last game. If we play like that, I like our chances each and every game.” He added, “The shootout didn’t go our way tonight,” but without resignation. Rather, there was a sense of belief.
Is the team’s offensive quagmire resolved? Not yet. Coach Murray said afterwards, “That was a good game out there. . . . They’re good goals, the kind of plays in a good hockey game. The puck is transitioning, there’s good battle, lots of compete. It was a real, good, solid hockey game. Those are the kind of goals that you’re looking for. Your top guys step up and make the plays, they score. Same from them. I think everybody went away pretty happy tonight.”
Second, the Kings played a more solid defensive game, except on the Penguins’ second goal, which saw the home team sleeping in their own zone with a couple of minutes left. Coach Murray said in explaining something else he likes about his team, “The number of power plays they had in the first period [five minors], the penalty kill. I know we give up one, but you know, the attitude was tremendous to get in those lanes and block shots and dig in.”
That last goal came with about three minutes left, actually. Chris Kunitz took a puck from behind the net and came out the left side, backhanding the puck past goalie Quick. He would later score the winner, a shootout goal in round four.
“After our letdown in San Jose, it was good to get those two points,” he said. “We had some letdowns [tonight] and they got some rush chances, but [on the goal], I chipped the puck up to Staal and he chipped it back to me, and I kind of got lost there, It’s nice to get the two points,”
IH asked him about his team with the return of Evgeni Malkin, who was everywhere, it seemed, recording more than nine minutes in the first period and ending with nearly 25, three more than the next nearest forward (James Neal, with 22-plus).
“He’s such an unbelievable player when he has the puck and the confidence out there. He brings up the whole spirit of our team, and the depth, too. We had people filling in for him when he’s not in the lineup, and Staal too. His natural ability to draw people to him on the boards on the power play also matters.”
He also talked about his shootout goal. “You come down with a little bit of speed, and try to make a little hitch or a fake shot and see what the goalie does. You can see if he takes a shift or moves his arms or opens up his legs a little. You try to slide it through to the back of the net.” That last was what he actually did, not theory on his part.
It might not have gone that far but for a lucky post late in the third period. Mike Richards gave the puck away to his own blueline, and a Penguins defenseman slapped it back at the net, where it beat everyone and went off the low right post and straight back out.
But that’s the negative, and here’s a final positive thing to note about the Kings: They’re not going to mess with their lineup or line combos. Murray said, “We’ve got the kind of people in place to do that [get scoring]. We just have to get it done. We’ve got some depth; we’ve got three lines that are built right now to be able to give us some scoring. We’ve got back end guys with Doughty, with Martinez, with Johnson who can shoot the puck, get up on the play. That has to evolve; that has to come along faster. I have a little bit of concern.”
What’s left for LA to worry about? Doughty isn’t quite where he needs to be yet. Murray said, “A lot has to do . . . with players missing training camp.” He also said that he wants to keep an eye on the possibility that the team will have a roller-coaster ride early, as it did last year. “We talk about get a good start until Christmas, then look where we are.”
And then there’s the new tendency for NHL teams to drop back to their blueline to await a rush. Murray sees it, but it sounds like he hasn’t quite adjusted to it. “We’re seeing everybody back with five in the middle of the ice, as soon as they lose possession. There’s an opportunity to bring four back and come up the ice. It’s a new kind of game that we’re starting to see, that kicked in with a few teams last year, and I think that every team we’ve played so far, we’re getting that same look.”
He continued: “Traditional hockey is to get pucks north right away, to get on the attack and get the forecheck going and recover. But now, with five above you, you have to have a change of mindset. It’s going to be slow and low and come together, almost a power play mindset. We’ve been going at that from the start of the training camp. We’ve had a lot of drills where we’re reviewing it and repeating it, but sometimes it takes a couple of months to get things in place that way.”
The team now jumps to San Jose Monday before hosting Nashville Tuesday night at home. They hope to build on the offense, and fans hope to see another game as exciting as this one was.
Brian’s new book, My Country Is Hockey, is rolling out in November. Look for more information here at IH.