There’s this way of playing hockey in LA that I dubbed the Terry Murray Method when he was the coach of the Kings. The game plan was always the same: score one goal and hope Jonathan Quick would get a shutout. It was foolproof, as long as the netminder did his part.
The trouble for Murray was that it’s not so easy to pull off, and no goalie has yet posted 82 shutouts in a season, or even 50, if that’s how many wins it takes to get into the playoffs these days. And so, amidst an epidemic of no scoring, Murray was ridden out of town in favor of Darryl Sutter. As everyone knows, he won the Cup in his first year. This was helped, in part, by a trade deadline deal that brought Jeff Carter to the team. He contributed eight goals in twenty playoff games.
Now here’s Sutter, two years later, facing the exact problem that did Murray in. His team can’t score goals. Over the four games coming into Thursday, the Kings had two goals. Miraculously, they’d won one game in that time, doing the Murray Method to perfection in San Jose on Monday evening. But if you look across the list of games they’ve played thus far this season, you’ll notice the following: they’ve been shut out five times. Twelve times, they’ve played in games where they’ve scored but a single goal.
It’s so much their way that other teams are picking up the trend. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said after the contest on Thursday, “We got two power play goals, and that against a team that doesn’t give up two goals a game, in the first period. I thought to get the first one . . . was big against a team that doesn’t give up a lot.” A moment later, he added, “They may have struggles [on offense], but they don’t give up goals. We talked about this being a zero-zero game and a 1-0 game for maybe sixty minutes.”
Their goalie on the night, incidentally, was Jeff Zatkoff. He was a Kings draftee in 2007, and spent the early part of his career in the AHL with Manchester. The Kings did not sign him after 2012, and Pittsburgh picked him up as a free agent. He played with their AHL team last year, and this season, has been in 12 games, with a 9-2-1 record.
Despite the early goals, Bylsma was reluctant to throw Quick under the bus. “It’s one game. I saw the Phoenix game. I saw the San Jose shutout. Today, it was six or seven shots in the first and three go in, and that was out of form, but he’s got a body of work that was more than just this game.”
Coming into Thursday, the Kings had played 55 games, and their average works out to roughly one-third of those being one- or zero-goal efforts. On the opposite side of that, they’ve had four or more goals a dozen times as well, and once, seven (versus Phoenix early in the season).
And since Sutter famously said, “It’s a 3-2 league,” you might be interested to know that on fourteen occasions this year, they’ve potted exactly three goals. Of those games, they’ve won all but one. How many were 3-2? Almost half of them—six.
On the season, the team has just 133, tied for second-last in their conference with Minnesota, who sits below them in the standings, and ahead of just Calgary. That the Kings are doing as well as they are, standings-wise, is down to the fact that they don’t let many past them. Their team GA is way below all but one team in the West. LA has let in 116, and St. Louis 119. In the NHL in total, only one team, Boston, is in that same league, and they narrowly edge the Kings out with a total of 115 allowed coming into Thursday.
Who’s fault is this? Well, that’s a pretty stupid question. Of course, it’s the players who must score. To score they have to shoot. The Kings do occasionally go through droughts, shot-wise, but then again, they oftentimes pour the shots at opposing netminders. Sutter’s response when asked about shots is usually something to the effect that you’ve got to get good ones, rather than just dumping the puck on net.
So look at the shot totals. The Kings have outshot their opponents in 33 of 55 games to Thursday, and have tied them in three. That means that well more than half the time, they’re after the other goalie more than the opponent is after their keeper. And it’s not like they never open up the howitzers. They have taken thirty or more shots (roughly the expected average) on 33 occasions, and forty or more nine times, with a high of 51 (versus the Ducks, a 3-2 win).
IH asked the opposing goalie, eventual 4-1 winner Zatkoff, about shot totals and efficiency. “You’ve got to be careful when you look at shots on goal. It’s about scoring chances. You could have 40 shots, but not that many scoring chances. Sometimes shots don’t tell the whole story. You can have 20 shots, but all fo them on odd-man rushes. Tonight, all the shots on Quick, I don’t think he had a real routine save. He had back doors and grade-A shots from right in the slot. There’s not that much you can do.” He summed up, “You can look it and say three goals on however many shots, but it’s the scoring quality.”
One curious thing, however, is that oftentimes, the Kings shoot down, if you will, to their opponents. If the other squad doesn’t fire a lot of pucks, in other words, neither does LA. In thirteen games to date, they have had less than thirty shots, and the other side also has recorded fewer than thirty.
What gives? If you’re winning, you need only take as many shots as you need to maintain that lead. So again with the counting—the Kings have won a dozen games where they’ve had less than thirty shots. So why can’t they score?
I’m working on an oral history of Wayne Gretzky right now, and one thing I keep hearing from the guys I’m interviewing is this: Gretzky was so good that he had everyone worried, all the time. You didn’t want to look foolish by getting beaten by him. You tried to keep your gap, but you couldn’t take the chance of giving him too much space. On the other hand, you had to stay far enough back that he didn’t just walk around you.
Obviously, most of the time, these strategies were only partially successful. Gretzky scored way more points than anyone in the history of the game ever has before, or likely ever will. Neither is it possible that the Kings will develop one of their prospects into another 99. But what they can do, as a team, is to teach the other side to fear what they can do.
How? Trade for a scorer. Or turn the guys they have loose to score. Stop worrying about the defense so much. Something else I’ve learned from the old pros: you can’t get scored on when you have the puck. So instead of thinking with half their minds that they have to always get back, maybe the Kings should just go all-out to get the puck into the other end, and keep it there.
“The game is more defensive these days,” you say. Well, that’s just crap. I see nearly as many Anaheim games as LA games, and I can tell you, ain’t nobody but the defensemen and goalies playing a lot of D in that building, and look at their numbers. Why are they what they are?
Because the Getzlaf line is a threat to score every time they’re on the ice. And no, it’s not true that they care nothing for the defensive side of the game. But they’re willing to let the offensive side of the game take the preponderance of their efforts. Maybe, such a mind shift is what the Kings need. Their leading scorer to this point has sixteen goals, and that’s Kopitar. The next is Williams, with fourteen, and then King, with eleven.
Thursday night, a scan of the Pittsburgh lineup showed their top three goalscorers to be (you guessed it) Crosby (27), Kunitz (26) and Neal (17). That was entering the evening. Kunitz potted another one midway through the first period to make the game 2-1. Malkin had opened the scoring, and Kopitar tied it. But the Kings had given the Pens a five-on-three power play for two full minutes, and they scored on that and also on the five-on-four that resulted when the first LA player got out of the box. Before period one was up, Jokinen had put one past Quick, who beat a hasty exit to the bench for period two.
Things didn’t go terribly much better for LA despite opening the game up a little bit playing in front of Martin Jones. The netminder did his part in a low-shots affair (16 for LA and 15 for the Pens with five to go in the second), stopping a one-timer from the close slot by Neal. But a couple of minutes after that, Tanner Glass came in on net on the left side of the zone and put a backhander past Robyn Regehr and up over the far shoulder of the goalie for a 4-1 lead.
The Kings pressed as the period ended, notching eleven shots in the frame. They had the Penguins pinned in their end for the last minute of play, and with just ten seconds or so left, the puck went to the front of the net and rolled right through the legs of Kopitar, who didn’t seem to see it.
The Penguins came into the game off a win against Buffalo at home three nights prior, so they were unlikely to appear fatigued, and indeed they did not. They came out in the third period with guarded play, eventually allowing the Kings to get their highest shot total of any period in the game, 12. None went by the netminder. He made a couple of dandy saves, off Kopitar and Williams. Kopitar slapped a backhand shot from the slot. Williams came in on a breakaway that developed from the blueline in.
Zatkoff got that one in the trapper, a move he said he planned as the player was coming in. “I’ve seen a lot of Kings games, obviously, and I know he has a great shot and likes to go upstairs. I just tried to come out and take away the angle, and I was able to read that he was going to go shot pretty early, and I kind of got a good jump on it and was able to make the save.” The Kings never gave up, but they didn’t get any closer, either.
The Pens take their win and go to Phoenix for Saturday, and then they’re close to home or at home until the first of March (except for those going to Russia, that is). They do come West again this year, playing against San Jose and Anaheim back-to-back on the 6th and 7th of that month.
“The coach is not safe,” were the words that I heard from someone I have a certain amount of faith in as an insider as far as NHL gossip is concerned. Think about it—Lombardi has fired a coach already, a move that worked out brilliantly. And the Kings, as detailed above, look almost exactly like the team that they were at that moment when Murray went and Sutter came. Hmmm.
The LA scratches for the evening were Frattin, Martinez, and Jeff Schultz. The latter player is Washington’s first-round pick in 2004. The Kings picked him up last summer. This year, he has been with Manchester for 41 games. He is yet to budge off the 399 total games number (NHL contests) that he started the season on.
Philly comes in on Saturday. Game time is 1pm. The crosstown Ducks play a game later that day, at 7pm.
Please read my novel, Pond Hockey. It’s out now.