The Mighty Florida Panthers, winners of 58 games last year, losers of only 18, with a total record of 58-18-6, roared into the playoffs and then promptly won a series, after which they died. The scorers of 340 goals, they, as the cliché goes, outscored their problems night after night in the regular season. That’s harder to do in the chase for the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the LA Kings went about their business methodically, dismantling opponents with their defense and not even having to resort to wildcard status, even though their scoring totals were 101 fewer goals than Florida’s (239). By many accounts, the Kings exceeded expectations in even making the playoffs, despite that they went out after a round.
But modest success is no success at all in pro sports, so as the Kings and Panthers pass the 12-game mark with a meeting, each team is different than they were a year ago. Florida is playing at least a somewhat-disciplined game, surviving the loss of Huberdeau and Weegar to Calgary and counting on the addition of Matthew Tkachuk to make up the slack. The team also recently added 38-year-old Eric Staal after losing Aaron Ekblad (more precisely, his salary cap hit.) They don’t seem as intent on scoring in bunches this year, being tied for seventh in Goals For in the East with two other teams.
On the Kings side, it would seem logical to say that the team should be scoring more, counting on the additions of Kevin Fiala and Viktor Arvidsson and defenseman Alexander Edler to allow them to gently expand their game into the other team’s end more often. Here’s what it looks like when things are going well: The Kings hit for four goals in around a third of a period (six minutes) versus St. Louis on Monday. They were crisply passing the puck, zipping it from stick to stick so fast the Blues looked dead to rights on the way to a 5-1 loss. The game didn’t exactly seem like “Kings hockey,” but bystanders could live with the results, obviously, and it was exciting to see the team hitting so precisely and controlling the puck.
That all went away as the week fed them two successive losses, in which the team scored only three total goals. What happened to the magic? That’s the thing–they can’t corral it yet, and that’s making the Kings an up-and-down team, where one night they have it and the next, it’s gone. So what’s noteworthy about each of these teams?
First, Carolina: Eric Staal is a visible presence with his 6’4” presence taking up the middle of the ice. Aside from playing with Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins on the fourth line, he features on the penalty kill, and he’s not above blocking a shot. Against the Kings, he took one that was so close to him that it hobbled him for the rest of the shift until a whistle saved him. He was still spinning and trying to intercept pucks, please note, even with the injury.
Tkackuk also makes himself known, albeit for the wrong reasons. He played the super-pest all night versus LA, including brushing past Jonathan Quick in the Kings’ net near the end of the game, an elbow flying behind him and out of the referee’s view. He also poked at Quick through his mask at the end of the game, earning 12 penalty minutes for his trouble after it appeared he’d reached Quick’s eye.
Bobrovsky can easily neutralize and opponent, his rebound control being especially evident on the PK. LA tried to use two strategies: try the one-timer from the right dot, and loft the puck in from the blueline, high, and hope for chaos. That doesn’t work when a goalie can punch the puck out to his defense to clear as reliably as this guy can.
For the Kings, the power play is largely ineffective, though LA did score one goal on it against the Panthers. But Florida had seven penalties. Discount one at 19:59 for goalie interference and another at that same moment a misconduct (both to Tkachuk for running Quick, not the first time he’d done it, as was said above). That’s five power plays with one goal to show for it. It does meet the 20% expected standard, but the PP itself is disastrous. There’s no attack. Fiala’s one-timer is hardly Ovechkin’s, and this “loft it in from the blueline” strategy just doesn’t generate anything because the team doesn’t get into the gritty part of the ice and smack pucks between the goalie’s pads after they drop.
The Kings, however, can be credited for not stopping even when things weren’t working for them at home. They were down by a goal, then tied it, got down, tied it, took the lead, lost it,and didn’t give up. They ended up winning 5-4, in regulation.
LA shows occasional bursts of exceptional skill. Witness specially the third goal, Arvidsson taking a long pass up from Quick and dropping it to Trevor Moore, who passed the puck up to Kopitar, who found Arvidsson, who had come in from the wall, where he had made the original play. This was the lone PPG in the game for either side.
Gabe Vilardi continues his dominating ways. Against the Panthers, his winning goal was pure skill, Vilardi taking the puck off the end boards off a shot wide by Alex Edler and finding the hole in Bobrovsky’s equipment.
Still, each of these teams must be considered a work in progress at this early stage. Florida is a little more disciplined than in the past; LA is a little more skillful and open. Neither team has settled into its identity yet, however, which is why high scores characterized by mistakes (turnovers, especially, on LA’s part) are still creating a look and feeling of inconsistency.
Perhaps Kings coach Todd McLellan said it best: “Are we going to continue to be a high-event team? Then we’d better keep scoring five. If we’re going to be a high-event team and not put four or five up on the board, then we’ve got to fix some things.”