It wasn’t just a slow start. It was practically no start at all that the LA Kings got off to on Friday night with their season on the line. The reasons? The non-conspiracy types might have said that it was the Kings’ lack of offense. No set-up in the Sharks’ zone. The way they had of letting the Sharks in behind them in the LA zone. The conspiracy-minded? They were going with the idea that the league doesn’t want the Kings to win, which would explain the plethora of penalties called on the LA team.
That’s pretty much nonsense. Only it looks an awful lot like the truth. Darryl Sutter even said so, or at least something like so, between games four and five. And what were the optics in Staples Center? In period one, the Kings were called for interference. Fifteen seconds later, a Sharks’ player pinned Dustin Brown in behind San Jose goalie Martin Jones. He held him there. And when Brown tried to get away, he left no room for him to go anywhere, so Brown came out of the crease right next to the keeper, who fell down. Brown got called for tripping.
The Kings were thus down 5-on-3 for nearly an entire two-minute span. But it backfired. Well, I mean, if it had been a plan, which it wasn’t, it could have been said to have “backfired.” (Get the nuance of the verb tenses there?) Why? Because they killed it, and the crowd went crazy.
But that didn’t mean they were not in trouble. They Sharks had scored at 1:08, and they would do again at 11:21.
Too bad, because the Kings arena presentation people finally got the atmosphere in the place right, and it was pretty jocular up to that moment. Games one and two, it was just like any old contest in January. Same overhyped, too-loud music. So loud it left the fans out of it. But Friday, they had a really spectacular light show and seemed to tone down the volume to a level that made it possible for the fans to participate rather than just spectate.
So why did the team on the ice fail? The first goal was a turnover with Couture in front. He had passed the puck to Donskoi, who fired from the mid slot. The second goal was off the rush, with Schenn screening Quick. The defenseman was right in the worst spot—too big to see around, not big enough to block the shot. It went up to the right of Quick, and he had no chance. Schenn had been on the ice for goal one as well, and he was also the first player to take a penalty.
So while it’s unfair to pin any lack of success on one guy, here’s a guy who had proved, in the latter part of the season and playoffs, to be a great big anchor on the team’s hopes.
Not that the offense did anything to right the ship. (And that’s my last nautical metaphor.) They managed (you know that this sentence isn’t going to end well) just four shots in period one. Including on a power play! That was because of a trip by Joel Ward at 16:27. He dumped Trevor Lewis behind the SJ net, and the Kings roared out to—wait for it—zero shots on goal in the two-minute advantage.
Not only that, but they didn’t even get set up. They barely controlled the puck in the San Jose zone. Honestly, it was pathetic.
Is it time to call out some Kings forwards? It’s been time. And you already know the names. Kopitar, one shot; Carter, zero shots; Gaborik, zero. Who had the other three of the first frame? McNabb, Muzzin, and Lecavalier. By the end of the game, Kopitar had four, Carter two, and Gaborik one. The team’s total? An inadequate 22.
Period two was opened with the crowd holding red lights up. Somehow, apparently, their color was controlled with lasers. Or something. It doesn’t matter how it worked. It was fun and cool. The Kings responded. They came out with a flurry of offense just before the three-minute mark, with Brown, Lecavalier, and Clifford getting a couple of shots and a couple more blocked. But the point was this: they were actually getting into the slot, close to the net, and firing away.
When they were playing with no energy, one wondered—is it not the players but the coaching that’s holding this team back? One person I talked to bluntly said, “This series hasn’t been good from a coaching standpoint.” From what I saw, Sutter was doing what Sutter does. Defense first. Strong on the puck. All that jazz. Only there are two things to note: this is the playoffs, and things are sped up. And maybe styles in the NHL change these days faster than they used to, and this grinding, slow (boring) style is just not going to be effective long-term. Or even short-term.
What works right now—and I’m not saying it will be the same in a week, or in the Finals, or in October—is crashing the net, zinging in wristers, and counting on deflections and tips, plus short little rebounds. And indeed, that’s what worked for LA in getting two goals in the second period.
One more thing: flinging the puck quickly around the offensive zone, getting the players on D to move. The Kings do that so seldom. They focus on the short game instead. It doesn’t work anymore. Time to rethink.
And that they did, shifting to a more mobile style and scoring three goals in the second period. The first came only after San Jose had scored its third, unfortunately. That one went from behind the net to out front, short pass, and was scored by Nieto of nearby Long Beach.
But then the Kings came on. Off the faceoff, won by Kopitar, the puck went out to the point. Doughty took a shot. It appeared to deflect off the player (Burns) tying up King. Then it bounced off the ice, off Kopitar’s skate as he went right to left across the zone, and into the net. King was credited with an assist.
Kopitar having scored held up his hands in triumph, but he didn’t smile, even a little bit. This was just the start of what his team needed to do.
The Kings got a second when they forced a turnover in the offensive zone along the boards, denying the Sharks the chance to clear. Muzzin gave it to Carter in front. He backed up and shot the puck up over Jones and into the very tippy-top of the net. 3-2.
The next one, the one that tied it, started with Toffoli and Carter checking behind the net. The puck went out into the slot to Clifford, who got a one-timer off that appeared to go in and out. It bounced in front, and Versteeg, following the puck, put it back in past Jones’s leg. Turns out, it had hit the pipe on the initial shot, so it was assist Clifford, goal Versteeg.
The period ended with the shots at 18-23, Kings listed first. The score was even. And all the play was in the favor of the Kings, including the tiny breaks.
One example: the Kings’ Lewis got a stupid slashing penalty (breaking the stick of another player, even if your blade hits the ice first, as Lewis’s did, will do it). On the power play, Burns threw a puck over to Vlasic. It bounced over his stick and out of the zone.
Later on and still shorthanded, Lecavalier got a one-on-one rush going and got off a shot that Jones had to absorb, a hard wrister. It wouldn’t have been a surprise at all had the rebound bounced out into the slot and been put it. That’s how things were going for LA, which was making its own luck by this stage.
And why? Because the LA offense finally decided to show up. The guys who get paid all the six and eight million bucks were checking. They were skating. And they were finally—goodness help us—going to the net with the puck. How many times have Kings fans watched as either Kopitar or (less often) Carter has taken the puck to the slot and passed it lamely to the outside, where simple geometry tells you it is less likely to find a way to the back of the cage. Angles, people, angles.
The question as the intermission wound through its 18 minutes: was one period all they had in them, or would this end up in OT, as was predicted by at least one well-known Canadian journalist?
Well, the answer came quickly. The Kings came out and didn’t skate. They had a good play to start the period where Lecavalier put it to the front of the net and saw Toffoli try to jam it in. But then they quit.
Harsh word that, quit. But here’s what I saw: The San Jose breakout was weak—two guys, no speed. But the Kings ingress into the zone was equally lame. One or two guys, no pressure, no turning over the dump in when that was the strategy.
The Sharks realized they had LA right where they wanted them. They sent three guys into the zone on the forecheck. And then they sent three guys into the zone with the puck. A broken play left it lying in the front of the net. Burns made a backhand pass to Donskoi, who put it into the open side of the net. 4-3.
The Kings sat back. And Pavelski took a puck at center ice and broke in right side. He fired a low wrister long side. Quick wasn’t in position, having moved too far to his right, and the puck went in. 5-3.
Where was the offense? Playing one guy at a time. No coordination. No sustained pressure. Nothing changed as the game wound through its last ten minutes.
The LA break-in continued to be two guys. No pressure. Why?
I dunno. If I got paid to work 20 minutes three times a week, I can assure you, I’d be pretty much on it the whole time. What happens to the LA offense is thus a mystery to me. I’m not the only one. Read the LA press, the blogosphere, and on and on. Their forwards just don’t show up and play a full game.
Their defense, well, that’s another matter. Schenn is a disaster on blades, which is pretty much what the Philly fans said he would be when he got dealt to LA. LA fans, and some of us in the press, held out hope, and he was OK at first. But playing nearly 19 minutes exposes his weaknesses. He was on the ice for the first three San Jose goals. But then again, Doughty was on for the last three. Muzzin, who played 26 minutes, was on for three of the six. Doughty got nearly 30 minutes, by the way.
But losing Greene and Martinez was probably too much to overcome.
Who was great? Quick. Had he not made a couple of sterling saves in period one, including one with the toe, the game would have gotten out of reach in the first 20 minutes. He did let in five goals on 21 shots (the final shot came late, into the empty net, to make it 6-3), but he was very solid other than on goal five. That he got little help from a very lame blueline corps cannot be charged to him.
So the Sharks avenged their loss in 2014, taken after getting out to a three-game lead. They now rest and wait while the Anaheim series plays itself out. That means they probably have a week off, though other than a giant ice bag on the chest of Joel Ward, I didn’t see any particular signs of malady in the locker room after the game.
To summarize, say it this way: the Kings met a very good San Jose team, and they lost the series not on laziness but because the Sharks are sharp and well coached. But they did nothing to help themselves, and that lack of sterling effort is going to rankle their fans all summer, starting, well, now.
And with that, the career of Vincent Lecavalier is over. He went out looking good, though. Very, very good.
Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey.