A few days ago, nobody thought there would be hockey at Staples Center Monday night.
Nobody except the twenty guys who do the real work, wearing the LA Kings’ uniform and taking the hits, shots, and punches that come along with being a professional hockey player.
But the Kings took Game Five of their series against San Jose in dominating fashion, thereby obligating the faithful to turn up one more time in hopes that their boys could prolong the series.
The vexing question was what had worked so well in that game, and what the team might do to keep it going. Saturday night, Coach Murray had made a lineup change. It was not the one everyone expected, which was to sit the unmotivated, underperforming Dustin Penner in favor of youth, speed, and desire in the form of Oscar Moller. Moller had played one game in the series, the second, logging about ten minutes with no points.
Murray’s change, with Scott Parse coming back after being on IR most of the year after a hip injury and surgery, was to sit Alexei Ponikarovsky down. But he also mixed his lines like he was making margaritas at a summer party.
Surveying Murray’s trios for Saturday and again on Monday showed groupings nothing like what he used earlier in the playoffs or during the regular season. The first unit was Dustin Brown, Ryan Smythe, and Trevor Lewis. The second, Kyle Clifford, Brad Richardson, and Wayne Simmonds. The third was Parse, Michal Handzus, and Justin Williams. The fourth, Kevin Westgarth, Jarret Stoll, and Penner.
What’s odd about that? Aside from Lewis playing one line one and Parse being back after such a long layoff, the peculiarity about this lineup is that fourth line.
What is the team’s best faceoff man—Stoll—doing there? And why is Dustin Penner still playing? He has been almost completely ineffective since about mid-March.
Murray, and every fan who watches the Kings, had lamented Penner’s lacklustre play late in the season and into the playoffs, when he had had a weeks-long unproductive period after a quick start with his new team. Rather than taking the gutsy path and benching him for a game, especially when the team found itself with an extra guy available with Parse having become healthy, Murray shuffled things around and kept him in.
Ironically enough, that line helped the team to win Saturday night. Penner got a goal, the team’s third. Murray said Sunday that he was focusing Penner in a new direction by moving him away from a role where he had to match up against the Sharks’ big man, Joe Thornton.
Monday, having him on the roster meant, as it did Saturday night, that Ponikarovsky was again scratched. His minutes in the series had gradually tailed off, though he got a goal in game four. In the first game of the series, he played over 16 minutes. This declined to seven, eight, and then nine in the three games following. In addition, he had six hits in game one versus San Jose.
Penner, by contrast, has had a high of 19 minutes on the ice and a low of about 11, recorded three hits twice coming into Monday, and had a goal and an assist. Monday he played almost fifteen minutes with three shots and three hits, but he was almost completely ineffective in all zones.
To take a couple of examples from Monday’s potential (and eventual) elimination game, in period one, he dumped a puck into San Jose’s end rather than carrying it. His winger was too far off to go get it, and Penner gave it up under no pressure. The Sharks recovered it and took it back up ice.
In the second frame, he failed to clear a puck, but his linemates did the job. Then, when he caught up with them at the blueline, he forced the play offside.
Was it significant that in the middle of the second period, Coach Murray moved him off the line he was on, swapping him with Parse so that the third line became Williams, Handzus, and Penner? A good idea if you’re looking for size and speed, except that Penner has no speed, or at least none that he uses.
That move put Westgarth, Stoll, and Parse together, but it was moot because the Kings’ power play took over just after Murray first showcased this combo, a four-minute chance after Joe Thornton put a stick into Brad Richardson’s mouth. It took the LA team a while, and they ended up scoring on a rush, rather than the usual set-up in the zone that happens with the extra man, but when Jack Johnson put a puck on net coming in on the left side, goalie Niemi kicked out a long rebound.
Justin Williams was streaking in on the right side, and he buried it into the open portion of the net. The shots at this point were Kings 12, San Jose 25, and the score was tied at one.
San Jose took advantage of lax defense shortly after, with Richardson, Parse, and Westgarth on the ice. The group had a total breakdown, nobody covering Jason Demers as a puck came to him on the right side of the zone. He put one past Jonathan Quick.
Things righted themselves somewhat as Murray kept mixing the lines as the second period wound down. Brown was centered by Stoll with Smythe on the other side, and they immediately created a scoring chance. Then the Simmonds line got out and they put a puck right through the crease behind Niemi which did not go in.
Notice anything? Penner was on the bench. He came out with Williams and Handzus shortly after, and again the momentum flagged. Murray threw out the Brown-Stoll-Smythe combo, then Simmonds and his group. Things picked up, and the crowd was alive again. The period ended with the Kings down in shots to San Jose by an 18-29 margin and the score 2-1 for San Jose.
The Kings charged right out in the third period, getting a goal within the first half-minute. This came from the new-old line combo of Smythe, Brown, and Stoll. Stoll had thrown a puck to the net, and Smythe got there at the same time as the disk and propelled it up and over the goalie. That line was together again later in the period, as were Stoll, Handzus, and Williams, and perhaps the team’s best line, Clifford, Richardson, and Simmonds. Clifford is moving up from fourth-line duties, where his role had been to chip in the odd goal and do some fighting. His hands aren’t always reliable—he missed a chance that might have put game one away in the Kings’ favor, which they lost in OT.
But as a combo, this group has found themselves. In the regular season, Simmonds was comfortable with third-line checking duties along with Handzus and a rotating group of others. But late in the season, he had slid back from where he’d been all year, not pushing the offense at all. Now, his speed and courage—he’s often the first one in on the forecheck—is complementing the toughness of Clifford and the speed of Richardson.
He said after the game that he thought his line had battled hard. “I think if we’re kept together for next season, we’ll play well. We’ll pick up where we’ve left off. I think we fed off each other; we’re high-tempo guys who never stop moving.”
But back to the point about the lines, notice anything about the combos Murray was going with late in the game? Right. No Penner.
The Sharks took a timeout with about 12 minutes left in the third period. It was essential, as the Kings had taken the play to them for the whole of thei first eight minutes. The shots were 24-32 at the time of the stoppage.
Right off that pause, Murray again rolled Brown, Smythe, and Stoll. Then the Simmonds group. They blew it, not backchecking hard with the Sharks coming into the zone. When the puck came laterally across the zone near the blueline, Richardson caught it in his sweater, and it dropped down, right to Dany Heatley, who took it toward the net and fired a perfect wrist shot up and over Quick to make it 3-2.
Coach Murray said after that he put that down to the mistakes of youth. “They had a great series; guys are scoring huge goals, and now you get it to extending the series to six, maybe to seven, and there’s a little bit too much coming at them, too intense. You get guys trying to sort things out, and you get caught. That’s another learning moment.”
The Sharks’ Jason Demers, who had earlier scored his team’s second goal, took an interference penalty in front of his net shortly after to give the Kings what might have been their last gasp of hope, and they took advantage. After a weak start to the PP, Stoll threw a puck to the net. The long rebound came out to Lewis in the slot, and he buried it.
The shots were 25 Kings, 33 Sharks.
The Kings had a gift-wrapped chance offered to them when Jamie McGinn was called for charging with less than four minutes to go. It was a major, and carried into the eventual overtime. The team couldn’t convert, and notched no shots in the extra frame. Penner used his only chance by going offside.
The Sharks had one shot. You know what that means. They took the series with a 4-3 win. The goal came at 2:22 of the first extra period, with the San Jose team’s big players taking charge. Setoguchi threw the puck to the front of the net. It went off of Marleau and bounced to the ice. Thornton spun around backwards and scooped it into the empty side of the net. Quick had no chance.
After the game, Murray and San Jose coach McLellan disagreed about one thing. Murray said that last Tuesday’s “Flop on Figueroa” had no effect on his team. “None at all.”
McLellan said, by contrast, “I said that night that we had used our mulligan up. 4-0 in the opponent’s first home game of a series. It could easily be 2-1, then 3-1 [in games], and then you’re scrambling. That was a huge turning point for us. I think we woke up a little bit and decided we wanted to play a certain way. It still wasn’t smooth, but that definitely was [the moment things turned.”
In the end, all Murray could look forward to was evaluating what has been. “If we had managed the puck a little better, and that comes down to lacking experience at critical times, we could have pushed that team further. I’m very pleased with the growth of individuals, the team. I like the change in the culture, the way things are headed.”
McLellan, by contrast, is looking at another series, though he wasn’t about to say which team he wanted to play. “If you can find me a coach who will tell you who he wants to play, make sure you introduce him to me,” he said. “What did we learn about ourselves? One, we don’t do anything easy, but LA played extremely hard as well. There is some resiliance in the locker room. The leadership showed itself through when it had to.”
Now they wait to see who comes their way. They’re the home team whoever it is.