The LA Kings might be a bit artificially high in their placement in the Pacific right now, having played as many as three games more than the teams which surround them. But they are on pace to make the playoffs, bolstered in part by their good home record, which stands at 6-4-0. Their last ten games, in addition, notch them at 5-3-2.
After a four-game road trip that saw them lose to Calgary, win in Edmonton, then lose in Vancouver and Seattle (though they got one point out of that game), they’re back home for American Thanksgiving week, save for a quick trip north to San Jose on Friday for an evening game. Doesn’t sound like they’re on an upward trajectory, does it? More like fits and starts. Fair enough.
Statistically, they are not great in the goals-for and -against category, sitting at a -6, with Vegas ahead of them in first in the Division and lighting up the lamps everywhere they go for a +22. But one thing the LA team has is balance, with a number of players clustered together for the goal-scoring and points-getting lead on the team. Goals, to take just that measure, are more or less spread evenly across the four lines, with the numbers being 17-15-20 over the top three trios.
The first of those is the one to talk about, though. That’s at the moment Kopitar centering Fiala and Kempe. (Vilardi has been moved to line three, not a demotion, according to the coach, but the attempt to find new chemistry.) For years, we’ve seen on a nightly basis how Kopitar can hang onto the puck. The problem at times has been that he’s had nobody to give it to. In addition, the Kings had a style that demanded short cycles and only high-chance passes. That seems to have been overtaken by a more ambitious, and risky, pattern of throwing the puck around the zone, including on the diagonal back to the point men, who then have the choice of which forward to distribute it to.
This works much better when the person getting the puck himself has the skill to deke a guy, or throw it up or over to a teammate without being concerned about making a mistake. That seems to be the Kings’ strategy at the moment. But they don’t always play it the way that works.
In their game against the Rangers on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, this stuck out on their first goal, where Kempe took the puck off the wall, the Kopitar followed it to the net as Kempe shot. One defenseman was in front. Kopitar got a touch, but Fiala scored the goal.
Afterwards, Coach McLellan explained it just like that: “We had a real good push in the first. We were an aggressive team. We were connecting passes and plays.”
Similar puck control marked their power play tally, where every one of the five players on the ice touched the puck. The final three were Doughty, who flung the puck inside the blueline to Fiala. He put it at the net with Vilardi waiting beside the cage. When it got there, he slammed it home. This is a level of control not exhibited in the past.
That doesn’t mean everything’s perfect with the team. The Kings don’t always do well with a lead. Case in point Nov. 14th versus Calgary. After coming back from a goal down, they were up, 2-1, but they did nothing but play catch-up after letting that get tied. Two late goals, by Kopitar and Kempe, made the game look closer than it really was. At one point, the Flames were up 6-3. It ended 6-5.
Against the Rangers, a similar letdown occurred. The Kings scored the aforementioned two goals, both in the first period. They then allowed the Rangers to notch three unanswered in period two. What was the difference? There just wasn’t the sense of purpose that there had been in period one. They were slower to the puck, and they passed up chances, guys cutting toward the net but make the extra pass, not taking what they were given. Vilardi, normally having a nose for the net, broke in almost alone, for instance, and ended up throwing the puck across the zone to teammate who wasn’t free. Sometimes lovely passing is too much passing, I guess, and the chance was killed.
McLellan explained that in very similar words to what I just did: “They came with their push, and we didn’t respond real well. After that, we sat back a little bit. We were slow. We didn’t connect on the passes we were connecting on in the first period.”
The lapses continue to haunt this team that has the potential to be so good. McLellan invoked a larger context on this: “Our game tonight matched our year. We’re inconsistent. We’re up and down. Whether it’s within a game. Whether it’s two-game segments, one-game segments. Back-to-backs. We’re still searching for that.” He mentioned that when a writer asked him what kind of game the team would put forth tonight, “I’d like to tell you what’s coming, but I’m not sure.”
Other problems including goaltending not making timely saves were also on the Coach’s mind, but that’s a story for another time.