So This Is Feisty

“We’re going to start a winning streak today, guys.” It was more a prayer than an affirmation, and I heard it off the lips of an Edmonton player a couple of hours ahead of their game with Los Angeles at Staples Center Sunday evening.

I’m sure it was well intentioned, but it mustn’t have seemed like an easy task. Sure, both the Oilers and the Kings were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in as the game started. The Kings were in their 12th game of the year, with seven wins. The Oilers were playing number 13, with just three wins. From the former, such a performance is hardly what is expected, and in fact, hardly what it appears when one observes the team’s steady play and consistent lineup.

For Edmonton, perhaps expectations, at least to those unfamiliar with what the team is doing on a day-by-day basis, are lower. The common wisdom says that despite high draft picks of late and a good core of offensive talent, the team is weak on the blueline and has not done much to remedy this over the past few years. Their D corps now stands at Jeff Petry, Ladislav Smid, Nick Schultz, Justin Schultz, Anton Belov . . . stop reading when you actually recognize one of these names . . . Ference and Grebeshkov. There, finally, a couple of guys not on the all-anonymous team. Trouble was, the latter guy was scratched on the night.

The Kings, however, have their own share of needs. Number one, they need some goals down the middle. It was ten games before the first of these came. They now have a good handful in the person of Jeff Carter, with five, but all that Stoll, Richards, Kopitar, and Fraser have potted equal two. Obviously, that’s going to cost some games.

Sunday night saw the Kings coming off of a two-day rest, their last game having been a 7-4 win over the Coyotes at home. In that contest, they had had a four-goal lead at one point and surrendered it to see the game tied, but they’d won 6-4 with an empty net goal at the last to make it seven and give Dwight King his first NHL hat trick.

Edmonton, meanwhile, had played the night prior, in Phoenix, and despite putting up four goals, they’d lost when the Coyotes had put up five.

Side note: are those of you watching East Coast games clear on how much scoring is going on out here in the wild West? Is it the same back there? Have two inches made that much of a difference (goalies, we’re looking at you)? Or is it the style of play out here? Anyway, it’s been fun.

And now back to the action. Last week, the Oilers put together a two-game winning streak by dethroning both Ottawa and Montreal in those teams’ buildings, but they’d then lost at home to Washington. Then came Phoenix, and the quick flight to Los Angeles for what was, for LA fans, an oddball start time of 6pm Sunday evening. Didn’t matter, as the building sells out every night now, and it’s actually, most games, full.

The first thing to note about the game—the Kings were wearing their purple and gold regalia of lore in honor of Jay Wells, who was being celebrated on the night. This, of course, meant some spectacle before the start and the accompanying delay. The two teams were on their benches all the while, the Oilers starters, at least a few of them, standing on the ice and banging their sticks as a tribute to Wells. Young players who appreciate players whose careers took place before they were born? That’s a good thing. Wells played from the last of the 70s until the mid-90s. He was born in 1959.

As might have been expected, the delay made for a bit of a lumpy start. Professional hockey players are a finicky (some might say spoiled) lot, and any break in the routine is tough. Ask them about afternoon starts to get a sense of that.

But Wells started things off on the right tone with his statement, “Let’s have a nice feisty game, just like the old days,” he said as he concluded his comments and directed a brief apology to the players on both benches for the delay, including a tip of the proverbial cap to the Oilers.

The halfway point of the first period saw the Kings with eight shots and at least two good chances while the Oilers stood at two. The latter were on the power play, however, and the team also put the puck into and through the crease in the early moments of that chance. They then pounded a slapshot off Quick’s pads (yes, indeed, the starter rather than the backup was playing despite the opponent’s record on this night) that was meant for David Perron to get a rebound chance off of. Instead, Doughty gobbled up the saved puck and shipped it down the ice.

The Kings took another penalty on the heels of that one, a hook by Doughty on a player skating across the crease. The Oilers had two shots on the first man advantage. On this one, they did nothing except a Hemsky shot into Quick’s gut and another chance where they moved the puck around and could do no more with it than toss it into a crowd in front of the net, where it hit a shinpad and dropped to the ice to be cleared. They then promptly gave the Kings a man-advantage chance.

This is not what a 3-8-1 team can do and get away with it. Looking at the numbers, incidentally, Edmonton came into the game with the league’s 24th ranked power play and the second-worst PK.

Those numbers were actually improved by their holding the Kings scoreless and to just one shot on this power play attempt and on other chances throughout the evening.

Meanwhile, observers were still looking for the feistiness that Wells had demanded. There was a hint of it when Nugent-Hopkins spun around and got hit knee-on-knee by Kyle Clifford, but most observers recognized that the contact was more the fault of the Edmonton player’s trying to avoid being hit than because of intention on Clifford’s part. A scrum resulted, but that came to nothing.

In between periods, the LA press were invited to talk to Wells, and he said, among other things, that he liked the spirit of the old days, when fighting was done to even scores, and often by the players offended. He said that fighting for its own sake, or the two guys who go out and fight right off a faceoff, doesn’t correspond to the spirit of those days.

It was perhaps in the spirit of evening things up that, with just a couple of minutes gone in period two, Ryan Jones and Kyle Clifford threw down. The fight came to not much of anything, but apparently was intended to make a point. So when it didn’t, right off the next faceoff, Jordan Nolan and Luke Gazdic went at it. That one was more of a scrap, with Nolan lucky that the linesman stood close, because Gazdic appeared to be ready to throw a punch after Nolan had been wrestled down to the ice, definitely anti-the-code.

And then before those penalties had been announced, Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin took another of what seem like an endless string of penalties of late, for interference. That power play saw the Oilers begin with the same number of shots they had concluded the prior period with, five. And they ended nearly that same way, but then Petry passed the puck cross-ice to Belov for a slapper. The rebound was put in by Nail Yakupov from the right circle, a flip shot that went up over the glove hand of Quick with Robin Regehr reaching out to try to get a stick on it. That meant that the Oilers totaled seven shots, to LA’s 13, with the score being 1-0 for Edmonton.

Mistake-proof hockey this was not. The Oilers took a penalty for hooking directly after this, and the Kings got just one shot on the chance, but Edmonton did get a semi-break on the strength of Boyd Gordon sending Jordan Eberle, who could only tip the puck despite being all alone in front of Quick. Later, the Kings could have had a goal but for Kopitar passing up the chance to shoot from the high slot.

No matter, because as that penalty expired, Edmonton took another one, a hold on Kopitar by Belov. A weak call, nonetheless it meant nothing as the Kings got zero chances, with their best miss being a turnaround slapshot by Jeff Carter that glanced up and over the far side crossbar.

The Kings, in what was becoming a familiar theme, took a penalty not long after (at 12:25) and rather than the Oilers scoring, they allowed no less than three near-breaks over the two minutes. The last was by Slava Voynov, who had taken the penalty, and who almost got a free puck coming out of the box.

The Kings tied the game as the period wound to its conclusion, on a Jeff Carter play at 16:58. He wheeled behind the net and passed the puck to the defense. Muzzin took a one-timer and Bachman allowed a big rebound. That puck came to Mike Richards, who carried it across the slot and shot a fadeaway wrister from the left of the crease to make the game 1-1. The period ended with the Kings standing on 22 shots and the Oilers at 12. The Oilers had had two penalties against in the period and had had two in the first. The Kings were penalized twice in each period as well. (The foregoing excludes the two fighting majors each side had racked up.)

Feisty? Not yet, and not hardly. The play was loose, the chances few, and yet it wasn’t the result of defensive systems but rather a kind of lazy, middle-of-the-ice style of play that prevailed on both sides.

That started to change as period three wound down, and the skill of the Kings versus the skill of Nail Yakupov became the game. Twice he broke in close to the Kings’ net, and twice he couldn’t get a shot off or it hit a leg. On the other end, the LA team was bombarding Bachman, with the best chance coming when Regehr threw a wrister at the net from the point and Kopitar got two whacks at it from the lip of the crease. It was these chances that prompted him to say after the game that he thought the team was generating enough, in response to a reporter’s question that suggested they were not.

By the time the game went to a shootout, LA had put 48 pucks at the Oilers’ net, and the return fire had been 18. Both goalies played well, as reflected in the fact that they were both awarded stars (Quick the first, Bachman second, which was entirely backwards).

The shootout went three rounds, with both teams scoring on chance one and the Kings burying their third as well to win the game, 2-1.

So in the end, did Jay Wells get his feisty game? Darryl Sutter said, “Well, there were two fights,” and didn’t say much else, other than that they had a feisty game in the sense, I think, of energetic.

“Goalie had a hell of a game. Stopped almost fifty shots for them.” He added that he thought his team had a lot of traffic. There was a goal disallowed, in fact, late in period three, when Matt Frattin was said to interfere with the goalie. There was no penalty on the play, but it was an example, said Sutter, of how to get traffic. “Matt does a good job of going to the net and having his stick down,” he described.

He also said that Yakupov plays with the Oilers’ two best forwards, “So if I played with them or if Yakupov played with them, then he should be a good player.” Pretty big diss there, but then again, if anyone had to be feisty, why not the coach?

Kings Notes

Sutter was not willing to say who might sit out next with an extra forward to two around the team, but that the guys who are sitting are not doing so because they’re not playing well. The team is just not getting production enough from the third and fourth line, he said.

My new novel, Pond Hockey: Rediscovering the Game, is out now.

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