Same Tune, Different Team?

Last year, the idea that their team might win had Kings fans excited, perhaps a little scared. They’d been here before, and it hadn’t turned out well. Not in 2011, when they bombed out of the playoffs early, and not in the years before that, most especially the heartbreaking year of 1993, when they Kings lost to Montreal in five games.

This year, the vibe is different. Staples Center is full, but it’s not full of fans on the nervous edges of their seats. It’s full of people who know what it’s like to win. They expect it. They’re nothing like the jittery, over-made-up teenagers crowding the sidewalk across the street going to the American Idol auditions on Tuesday evening.

The team is also doing it a different way. They got down 0-2 in the St. Louis series on the gaffe by Jonathan Quick which gave the game away in game one. Last year, they never trailed in any series they were in. Against the Blues, they came back like a machine, never wavering from the plan to win every little battle. And it worked, in four (more) straight.

Against the Sharks, the plan has to change, at least some. The Sharks have finishers, at least four good players, “big” if not in size, in skill. Pavelski, Couture, Marleau, and Thornton. Containing them would be essential. The Blues, by contrast, did not have anyone who could bear down and convert chances. This, however, would become a theme for San Jose’s bench boss. But for that, wait.

First, the game. The Kings did what they needed to contain the Sharks in winning 2-0, if by “containing,” one means “keeping their stars off the scoreboard.” In fact, while the Sharks bested the home team in shots, 35-20, they were rarely close, not often dangerous. Their opportunities came and went, singly, not as sustained pressure. Note that this was less true in the third period.

In that frame, for instance, Thornton fed Burns in front for a shot. Quick only half saw it, and saved it with his chest, a positional save if ever there was one. The next shift, Raffi Torres fought off two checkers for a turnaround wrister. Both were a threat. Neither replicated what had been done in period one, the highlight of which for San Jose was a turnover that sent someone in on Quick. A slapshot resulted, which was easily turned aside. Time and again, the puck would come into the Kings’ end, but nothing would come of it, except perhaps long slapshots that Quick punched out as rebounds. Even then, there was nobody available to take up the second chance.

After the game, Darryl Sutter explained after that more shots in the third would be what you’d expect when a team is trying to come from behind. “Generally, a team wanting the lead going into the third period, generally that team wants a lead and generally pours it on.” Yes, that’s what the tape sounds like. But to discount what San Jose did late would be to make a terrible mistake, because the Sharks were dangerous.

Joe Thornton, for his part, disagreed with the idea that the Sharks were better in the third. IH asked him about the surge, and he said, “No, we played great in the first. They just scored, but we played great in the first.” Great is now redefined to mean eight shots, same as the Kings, about even hits, and losing in the faceoff circle. Oh, and getting outscored by a goal.

He carried on, “We got thirty-some odd shots, which is hard to do against this team. . . . That’s generally how it works. You’ve got to get some shots, got to get some rebounds.” He further said that their power play could sharpen up, and hopefully that would make a difference.

“We played well. I thought we carried the play in the first.” Wow. The record is broken. For you youngsters, that means it keeps playing the same words over and over. Still, Thornton said nothing about the third period, when his team really did outplay the Kings.

And finally, Todd McLellan had his own take on things. “I’ve just spent a week, six days anyhow reviewing the St. Louis series, and I’ve heard a lot of the same stuff coming out of their mouths,” by which he meant that Quick was terrific. “We didn’t accomplish enough. There’s a team that just played against them for six nights, and said they had a lot of chances and the goaltender made a number of saves. We can’t be that team again. We’ve got to find some ways to score.”

Interesting that right after McLellan said that he had studied the Blues and determined his team would not repeat their mistakes, he said, “You have to find ways to finish. We have players who are very capable of doing that, we have players that are capable of scoring greasy, dirty, playoff style goals, and that’s going to have to come out in this series.” The Blues said precisely that. They couldn’t do it against the Kings.

The Sharks finally got their game, really, in about the last six or seven minutes. Early in the third period, it was more of the same. Witness, for example, what happened on their power play early in the frame. First time in the zone, the Sharks were hemmed behind the LA net. The second time, they couldn’t control the puck and got no chance. The third time in, they got off a weak slapshot, almost a consolation for doing nothing, taken by Vlasic off his back leg, nearly at half-speed.

The question is, was it their lack of production or something the Kings were doing that kept them off the scoreboard? My observations said that early on, the Sharks were not penetrating. They would throw the puck to the corner, but not chase it. In the third, they did better. Sutter said that his team did a good job countering by taking the forecheck and turning it around, back at the Sharks. He wasn’t willing to concede that the Sharks were better late, only that they had made a push. His squad, by contrast, was characterized by “try[ing] to be strong on the walls . . . us[ing] four lines . . . six defensemen.”

Finally, with minutes left in the third period, the Sharks got some sustained zone time, with Wingels, Vlasic, and Desjardins massing behind the Kings net. Then in came Thornton and Justin Braun, a defenseman playing low, and the puck went out to the point and came back in on a slapshot clearly meant for redirecting with the Sharks crowding in front.

It was Quick who saved the day in the late going, because in those cases when the Sharks were playing big, as just cited above, they put the puck to the net in ways that were hard to pick out. The shots were low; they were on the ice often, ripe for redirection or rebound. But the San Jose coach had no interest in going on and on about the goalie. When asked about his play, McLellan said, “He’s a good goalie.”

Before the game, faceoffs were discussed as a crucial aspect of success, with the numbers showing that San Jose excels in this area. Critical would be draws in the Kings’ end, but not because it kept San Jose off the board, because it put the Kings on it. Their first goal, the ultimate game-winner, was off a draw that was squibbed out and then, on a partially broken play, passed from Richards to Voynov. He took the puck down the ice and slapped one past Niemi. There were 12.9 seconds left in period one. Sutter commented on the matter after, indicating that draws mattered. On the evening, the Kings bested San Jose in that area, through two periods. In the third, with Stoll out after a hit by Torres, they declined, losing on the night in the end.

San Jose’s coach summed the night up well at the end of his press conference. “We played with energy, not polish,” he said. If he intends to win a game, he’s got to find a way to correct that, but toward the end, it looked like his guys were doing better. It remains to be seen whether the mighty LA machine, now rolling, can be derailed.

Kings Notes

Stoll went down after a hit from Torres. A charge was called on the play, an open-ice hit. Torres had come from behind the Sharks’ net, where he had just pounded Doughty. Bit it didn’t look like a charge to this ex-referee.

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