You Can’t Manage Luck

Really. Did you expect the LA Kings to just go away? Not without a fight, or at least an epic hockey game. That comeback over San Jose was just too much to waste. And their coach’s strategy all along has been to hold their feet to the fire. As he said it after the eventual win, “Any time you take the first shift for game one [of the playoffs] you’re facing elimination.” He then pointed out that this is the team’s ninth series with the current leadership. “They’ve won series and they’ve lost series, and they understand what it takes to win a game.”

So Wednesday night, they came out and controlled play versus Anaheim in period one. They weren’t dominant, because no Kings team can be, at least not in a way that seems spectacular. More in a way that you look at the shots after one period, note that they are 8-5 in LA’s favor, and think to yourself, “Wow, I thought it was more.” Their game isn’t dominance in the sense that they fire away and overload the other team’s netminder. Rather, it’s control. Contain. Neutralize.

In fact, on nights when they outshoot their opponents by a large margin, they generally lose the game. This is confounding, and Sutter is often forced to remind the people questioning him after the game that it’s not the numbers that matter, in terms of volume. It’s quality and control of the play.

So in the playoffs thus far, coming into Wednesday night, the LA team had outshot their opponents in seven of 12 games, and they’d won just three of those. But their game is not to outscore anyone by more than one goal, so in a way, margins don’t matter. And after all, a difference of one’s enough.

But wait. The Ducks coming into the night were 5-1 in one-goal games. The Kings were 1-3. So maybe one’s not always enough.

Thus the home team’s plan coming into Wednesday night seemed to be to shut it down, and with an early goal scored by Jake Muzzin at even strength off of a shot where he snuck way low into the zone, practically to the net in fact, they had what they needed. They almost immediately started to stifle the Ducks. The shot total, more than midway through the game, was 12 Kings, 10 Ducks, but even that was deceptive. The Ducks hadn’t had one, not one, that posed any danger at all to Quick or his defense.

The Kings did not exactly light it up either. Despite enjoying a couple of penalties, they weren’t able to get to the net. Too bad, because early on, wunderkind John Gibson, though he was solid, was clearly feeling his oats a bit, in that he was overplaying the puck. On one, he was way out into the middle of the zone trying to get a loose puck. That only didn’t backfire because Ben Lovejoy came sliding all the way across the zone to block Dustin Brown’s potential shot at an open net.

Gibson got his comeuppance later on in the second period, when Trevor Lewis broke down the middle. Bryan Allen was back, and he and Lindholm were pointing to each other, completely confused as to what to do. Lewis just kept coming, eventually putting a wrist shot on net from high in the left slot and seeing it trickle through the middle of his legs. Bad goal. 2-0 game.

Asked about the goal afterwards, Gibson said, “It was just one shot. Missed it. Happens.” When asked again to break it down, he said, “I missed it.” And then again, “I missed it,” and with that, it was, “thanks,” and the interview was over. What does this tell you? That he’s feeling the pressure despite the come-what-may attitude? It doesn’t matter. He’s got to stop a shot from that angle and distance, and if he can’t do that Friday, the Ducks are in trouble.

The Ducks got one back not long after, not a bad goal, but certainly the product of several mistakes. One was a turnover at the middle of the ice, Tanner Pearson fumbling the puck and letting the Ducks grab it. Pearson was skating backwards at the time.

Palmieri got to it and took it into the zone, went around the net from left to right side, and scored with his stick extended about half a mile. Quick was trying to get over, but looked a little bit sluggish on the play. So it was 2-1, and the period ended that way, and also with almost historically low shots: LA 16, Ducks 12.

Clearly, each team would get a talking to in the intermission. For the Kings, it would be to keep containing. They had slowed the game down and kept the Anaheim players to the outside all night long to that point. For the Ducks, it would be more of an emotional thing—don’t count on a miracle comeback, make something happen in the early third, that type of thing.

While neither team has felt particularly bad being on the road this series, since compared to the typical road series the travel has been nil, neither did the Ducks want to push it to seven. That’s the script they played out last year against Detroit, and it ended in disaster. That was also due to a completely lackluster effort in game seven at home.

So the Ducks had every incentive to come out and stretch the ice, play their game of long, risky passes, skating. They didn’t do it. Instead, you could describe the way the LA team played them this way: they forced Anaheim to go straight into the offensive zone. They had neither spread nor speed, and thus their playmaking was ineffective. Very few passes went across the ice to their target. The Kings were effective at containing the blueline, shutting down the Anaheim speed game by giving them nowhere to skate with the puck, and nowhere to pass it.

Just to cite one example of that, the Koivu, Cogliano, and Silfverberg line got to the blueline in the third only to be forced offside by the Kings, who stood firm there.

The Ducks had a power play in the late going, about five minutes to go, and the Kings and their goalie kept Anaheim out of it. Quick, first, was miraculous. A shot came from the right mid-slot by Vatanen, and it hit Quick in the chest protector so hard it was heard in the press box. Then the puck went to Fowler at the blueline, and he moved in and zinged a wrister so fierce that, while Quick caught it, he literally fell over sideways after it hit his glove. He never loses his balance like that.

The Ducks Perry then got forced out of the zone with the puck, being pushed over the blueline by Dwight King. The power play ended with the shot totals registering 21 Kings, 18 Ducks. At least Anaheim had been close, but not enough, and they shortly took a penalty of their own. There was 4:13 left on the clock. The Ducks would never get close again, despite late pressure. Their best opportunity came after the puck escaped a crowd in front and landed on Perry’s stick. He was going backwards, fading away, and he got only half a stick on his wrist shot. That’s kind of how the game had gone. Was it that he, and his top-tier linemates, weren’t that good? More like the Kings had them contained. Sutter said about that, “If you look at it, it’s probably more going back into the last game. The goal that [Getzlaf] scored was one and a lot of points [came] on the power play.”

On this night, none of the top men were heard from, on the Anaheim side. Bonino assisted on Palmieri’s goal. On the other side, the first goal, the Muzzin tally, was assisted by Kopitar and Gaborik. THe second goal, Williams and Voynov got the assists on.

In his post-game comments, Sutter wasn’t willing to talk about the importance of this series for California, but he was sure about his team. “You can talk all you want, but there’s a big underdog going in. We talk about it all the time.” Whether that’s because he believes it or because the idea works as motivation is not entirely apparent. Either way, the message is the same.

Friday night, the Kings will try to continue their record of success when facing elimination. They’ve been in that spot nine times since 2011 and have won seven of those games. They have not, to date in their history, played two game sevens in one playoff year, if there’s anything in that for the pressure factor.

Boudreau of the Ducks was charitable in his assessment of the opponent and the loss. “We’ve recovered now. We’re ready to play. Hey, they beat us. It’s a tough series. It’s a great team we’re playing, and to think that it’s devastating, it’s ludicrous.”

He said that to win the last one, “What it’s going to take is someone getting a lucky bounce and holding onto a lead.”

In the face of that, one last Sutterism for you: “Luck? I can’t manage luck. I’m a coach.”

Notes
The lineups were precisely what they have been, except that the Kings sat Jordan Nolan and put Kyle Clifford in to work with Mike Richards and Dwight King. Nolan has played just three games this post-season, the first and third against San Jose and Monday night in Anaheim. Clifford has missed just the game Monday. But he played only 5:51 of the Kings’ prior game against the Ducks, leading one to wonder whether there was a minor injury at play, or just Sutter’s decision.

Excluding goalies, the Kings have used 21 players this post-season, and the Ducks 23. Of course, 18 are on the roster any given night.

You already know that the Ducks have used three goalies: Hiller five times, Andersen seven, and Gibson three. The Kings have logged minutes for two goalies: Quick and Martin Jones. Quick has started all thirteen games to date.

The Kings have now staved off elimination four times this year.

Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey for complete coverage of the SoCal hockey scene, and some total nonsense as well.

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