What Islanders?

Saturday’s game of Islanders at Kings might have been a curiousity to West Coast fans because they rarely see a team like the Isles.  Though New York was here last year, on March 20th, and LA was on the Island in October of 2009, most of the players and stories on the visiting team are just vague notions at the corners of Kings’ fans minds.

They know, for example, that the team has a goalie signed for a billion years, but who rarely plays.  They realize that the team has another pretty good goaltender who plays, like, every game.  They may not realize that that guy (Dwayne Roloson) is forty-one.

And that there are a couple of familiar names in the group—John Tavares and Matt Moulson.  The former was the much-touted rookie in the spring draft of 2009; the latter used to be a King.  He had a great couple of years at the club’s AHL affiliate in Manchester, and was burdened with high expectations coming into the NHL in 2007.  He never really panned out as far as the Kings were concerned, however, scoring six goals in 29 games with the club.

In New York, he had a great season last year, scoring 30 goals in 82 games, though without a lot of assists to go along with those tallies—just 18.   And no wonder—the team around him offered little else in the way of scoring punch, or defense.  Two of the three goaltenders they used had a GAA at 3 or above.

Whatever the motivation, whether curiousity about these vaguely familiar figures or for some other reason, a full house was on hand.  Why?  If for no other reason, to watch the Kings, for crying out loud, to watch the Kings.  They’ve been winning, having jumped out to the best home start since 1980-81.  Both then and in 1975-76 team got out to 7-0 starts.  This year’s team has won every home game this year, seven coming into the night.

A lot of records these days are bunk because the current league policy of not allowing ties breaks the continuity with the past.  Goaltending wins?  Meaningless.  Points, wins, streaks of gaining a point?  Pointless.  But consecutive wins (as opposed to games with a regulation point) is still what it always was, and the Kings exited the night with a new team marker at eight home wins to start the year.  Their overall record?  12-3-0.

Those wins come courtesy of one main item: a penalty kill that has not been beaten at home yet this season.  That, of course, comes to a large degree from the clichéd “best penalty killer,” the goaltender, with Jonathan Quick having played in 11 of the team’s games and five of the first eight at home.  His GAA entering the evening, 1.58 and save percentage, .944.  He allowed but one on Saturday night.

Coming into the game Saturday night, the team was first in the league in PK percentage (91.5) and had killed 17 in a row overall.

The challenge would be to keep the Islanders from spoiling that, since they came in tenth in the league with the extra guy, at exactly 20 percent. Exiting, the Kings were even better, having killed a handful more.

The game began with two quick goals by Anze Kopitar.  The first came off a weak clear by Matt Martin and a lucky bounce.  The puck was shot from the point by Davis Drewiske and thumped off of the back of Dustin Brown’s leg.  Kopitar was just coming off of the boards where he had checked Martin, and the puck went right to him.  He whizzed it past a surprised Dwayne Roloson.

He scored again at 5:02 gone, a hard-working goal from in the crease.  The puck had come from the point, and Kopitar picked up the rebound not once but twice, the second time beating the goalie.  He said after the game that he doesn’t remember another game where he scored two such quick goals.  “Last year we had a game where we scored the first three shifts, but it was me, Willie [Justin Williams] and Smitty [Ryan Smyth], but we scored on the first three shifts.  That was probably the most comparable to [tonight].”

When asked if he was hoping for a hat trick having scored two so fast, he said, “It’s one of those things if it comes it comes, but if not, it’s fine.  You try to get it another time.  Maybe sometimes you shoot more, off the rush especially, but you know what?  It doesn’t matter.  The thing that matters is we got the two points, we got the win.”  That, of course, ruins the surprise for those reading, but really—did you think the Isles were going to come into LA and upset this team?

The Isles didn’t just lie down.  They got one back shortly after—like 37 seconds later—after Quick poked a puck out from in front of him right to Rob Schremp in the right side slot.  He fired a wrister past the goalie, by now screened by his own defenseman.

The first period saw the Kings outshoot the visitors by 12-7, a stat which put the Kings on pace for a season high.  The most shots the team had fired coming into Saturday was 35, against Atlanta.  The period high, by the way, was 15, against Chicago  in Illinois.

Enough about the action.  How’d the team look?  With an opposing squad as down and out as the Isles, you might think that it would be easy to show off all one’s skills, and certainly the Kings had all the momentum in the early going.  But the Isles are still an NHL team, albeit the last-place one both entering and exiting the evening.  Justin Williams said as much as he commented about the game afterwards, noting that the visitors had had a great start, and that these kinds of slumps (like the Isles are having) happen to any team.

One LA player who showed a better game than he had last time out (against Dallas on Thursday) was Drew Doughty.  He was out with a concussion for six games through October 30th and back for three games coming into Saturday.  In the last game, he was often out of place, getting caught up a couple of times, and once turned around at his own blueline, losing his man in uncharacteristic fashion.  On Saturday, he was much more confident, playing 23:39 and recording a goal and an assist on five shots.

The blueliner got hit at one point against Dallas in a play that scared onlookers due to the concussion.  Adam Burish hit him, and Doughty’s head hit the glass.  His helmet popped off.  Burish was banished for five and the game.  Doughty got no more than a facial scratch, and has downplayed it in the media since.  But the team is now enforcing upon him the demand to wear a mouthguard.  This mandate came after the concussion, but these last couple of days, a trainer has been made responsible to make sure that he doesn’t leave it in his locker stall between periods, according to a story by Rich Hammond, Kings’ correspondent.

The team cites studies which show that a mouthguard can help prevent concussions.  I have cited such evidence myself in articles in the past, though an archive research of scientific articles shows that the evidence comes largely from one study, somewhat in question in terms of its sample size.

But if for no other reason than to protect the teeth, the mouthguard is a good idea.  Why, though, not ensure that the helmet also does all it can?  Measure the kid’s head for size and see that he has a helmet that fits, then force him to wear the chinstrap tight enough to keep the lid in place.  As I’ve said before, if you look at the NFL, you’ll see that they police the helmet and chinstrap issue tightly.  That’s not to say that players don’t get concussed, but anything that can be done has to help.  Enough already with the macho Pronger chinstrap that hangs down four inches below the guy’s chin.

Enough, and back to the action.  The Isles and Kings played a loose game in the second period, with the final six minutes especially seeing chances go back and forth.  The Kings were up 3-1 by that stage.  Within a couple of minutes, Dustin Brown cruised in for a chance and was upended by a sliding defenseman; Doughty and Josh Bailey collided at the left boards in the Kings’ end and Doughty got knocked down; and Kyle Clifford almost busted a breakaway.  Each team had nine shots in the period.  Justin Williams’ goal at 3:15 tied his career high with points in nine consecutive games.

Perhaps more noteworthy was that a shift or so later, in his own end, Williams was lying down in front of an Isles’ wrist shot.  Anytime he does such things, it’s a bit of a nervous moment given his history of injury, but the way he’s playing right now, he’s everywhere, and nothing seems to be able to touch him.

IH approached him after the game to ask him about his recent success at both ends of the rink.  “On the back end, we’re all committed.  We’re all taking ownership of ourselves, of this team.  No matter if it’s offense or defense, we’re doing little things that are crucial to winning.  That’s what championship teams do, and we’re going to keep learning that throughout the whole year,” he said with his characteristic, magnetic smile.
He added, “The coaches have done a terrific job of scouting the teams we’re playing and making little changes here and there that help us keep the puck out of our end and get it into theirs as quickly as possible.”

His coach commented about him post-game.  “He’s having fun.  That’s what he’s doing.  He has a smile on his face when he came into training camp, and he’s playing a high-energy, puck-possession game.  He’s making plays and scoring goals.  Part of the bargain is you have to hold up your own end of it.  You have to prove to your teammates that you deserve the minutes, and to play the role that you play.”  He said that Williams came into camp in shape, and that he and Williams discussed the importance of the player coming out and showing everybody that he could stay healthy and put up good numbers since this is his contract year.

The Isles had a chance to pull within one when Kopitar took a holding the stick penalty with a couple of minutes left in period two.  This happened behind the Islanders’ net.  But as if to help the home team pad its PK stats, the Isles took a similar penalty four seconds later.  A kill is a kill, but the numbers aren’t exactly going to tell the truth in this case.

The third period saw the Kings add a couple of goals, one on a penalty shot by Dustin Brown.  IH asked him whether he remembers the excitement of that watching hockey as a kid.  “You watch the highlights this year, the last couple of years, but watching growing up as a kid, you saw one or two.  You didn’t see penalty shots back then, but now it’s, they call it, even if you have a step on him or on a hook.  Even if you get a shot off, they’re calling a penalty shot, so it’s definitely an exciting part of the game, and it’s happening often,” he explained.

He said that he knew the play would be a goal or a penalty shot.  The defender had hauled him down, and Brown got off a shot, sort of, and the puck carried under him and into the net, which was dislodged as the goalie slid back also.  He continued to describe what he did on the shot.  “I had a plan at center, and then I switched at the blueline.”   He laughed.  “Really, I have three moves that I do, and two of them come off that move to the right.  So I just pulled a Kopi and slid it five-hole.”  It made the game 4-1.  The team added one more, on the power play.  It was Doughty’s first goal of the year.

Dwayne Roloson suffered his seventh loss of the season, this time by a generous allowance of five goals.  In the three games before this one, he was just 0-2-1, but that on a stingy four goals allowed.  The fault, of course, even in a 5-1 loss is not his.  His defense is decimated, with three of the top six guys out and none within any reasonable timeframe of returning.

The shots were lopsided, ending 34-19 for the home team.  Considering that the Isles took four minor penalties to the Kings’ five, it makes the disparity seem even more a reflection that the New York team just can’t get things together.

The Kings now play in San Jose on Monday night.  The coach said after, “It’s a physical game, and you have to earn the right to win out there.”  He said that San Jose has a good team, and that “everybody battles, everybody competes [on his team].  It’s a very hard building.  You just want to keep playing.  Don’t get away from your structure.  Don’t get away from your attitude that you’ve been showing.  I think the good things will happen whenever you approach the game with that way.  We had a little bit of success in San Jose last year, and we have to look at that and draw upon it.  Everybody’s going to have to be ready to do their job the right way.”

Kings Notes

Kyle Clifford has now played 11 games, and so uses up a year on his NHL deal, even if he’s sent back to Junior hockey.

Brayden Schenn is in town, but again was scratched.  He has played eight games to date, and thus could find his way into one more before the team sends him down, if they do.

Brian’s book Living the Hockey Dream tells the story of Anze Kopitar and other players who light the lamp on a regular basis.

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