The LA Kings had the chance to continue their spoiler ways as the Colorado Avalanche came into town on Monday night for a 7:30 pm start. The clue that the Kings are being taken seriously: Pavel Francouz was in the Colorado net. He’s the Avs’ “good” goalie, and he has played most of the last dozen games for the team. But he has just three of his last six possible standings points after reeling off a string of six wins in late February.
For Colorado, this was the second night of back-to-back games. Goalies generally rotate those. The message: either “We put all our eggs in this guy’s basket right now,” “We don’t trust our backup,” or “It’s just the Kings.” Oh, boy, would that latter have been a mistake.
The backup, by the way, is Michael Hutchinson, who is possessing of a 3.47 GAA and .888 save percentage. He last played on March 2, though well—he allowed only one goal in the victory. You likely know that Philipp Grubauer has been hurt since mid-February.
The Avs themselves are rather solidly in their playoff spot, second in the Central Division. Perhaps they’re lucky to be there, because there is quite a drop-off from their second (90 points) to the third-place Stars (82 points) and fourth-holding (77 points) Minnesota. The Wild, you’ll recall, looked horrible in a 7-3 loss to the Kings on the weekend. They redeemed themselves somewhat with a win, albeit in OT, in Anaheim Sunday.
Anyway, the Avalanche rolled in on an 8-1-1 streak, but LA is playing fast and loose and unafraid. Perhaps better, the Kings are complementing their defensive ways with a more pro-active approach to offense. They now actually shoot the puck—even Kopitar—and they are less timid about crashing the net. Their goals have come easier of late, finally.
The difference in the Kings might be put down to two things: pursuit, and opportunism. They’re far more willing create plays now. The old simple cycle is on hiatus. It puts me in mind of an interview I recently heard on Sirius/XM.
Maurice Richard was interviewed sometime around 1980 for a CBC radio show that was replayed the other day . The upshot was this, and this is not an exact quote: Richard was of the opinin that, “Kids these days, they have the curved sticks, and they just want to slap the puck to the net from the blueline. They don’t make plays.”
Well, the Kings weren’t making plays, and this goes back to the Sutter era. It was all safety and defense. “Not no more.” And it’s not just that they’re launching shots for the sake of launching shots. Those are no good in this NHL, where teams converge and cover, blocking shots so effecitively.
Now, suddenly, they’re playmaking all over the place. Their two goals in the first period, plus a myriad of other things they did beautifully, show this. Listen here: Goal #1 was a drop pass, Austin Wagner to Nikolai Prokhorkin. The latter cuts a bit to the right, towards the slot, and fires a slapper from in close. Meanwhile, Wagner has snuck around the net. When the puck comes off Francouz’s shoulder into the waist of an Avs’ defender, he can’t quite corral it, but he’s also casual with it. Thus when it drops, guess what? Wagner has worked his way around the net, and he skates right onto the dropped puck, and whacks it past the goalie.
The second goal, coming 1:03 after the first, was similarly opportunistic. The puck was grabbed off the faceoff by Martin Frk. He shoved it cross-wise to the blueline, where Mikey Anderson received it. He fired off a wrister, low, and it went off a Colorado stick, changing into a fluttering, directionless puck, and it somehow crawled past Francouz about six inches off the ice. In metric, that’s about 15 centimeters, if I’m guessing right, for you non-US readers.
The Kings weren’t done, though they didn’t score again in the period. Sean Walker went on the rush and delivered a shot. They stole a puck and Michael Amadio and Prokhorkin went to the net.
No wonder the Avs were content to fiddle around with the puck at center to kill the ending moments of the first period.
The only question one might ask was whether this was LA hustle or Colorado ambivalence. But that’s not appropriate, really, given what the LA team has done lately. They’re just not the same team they were. And it’s really fun to see. If you can keep the “there is no point in this because we’re not making the playoffs” thoughts out of your head, you can actually thrill to this kind of hockey. LA is dominating.
The game proceeded with more of the same. The Kings jumped on every puck and took every chance. Instances: Trevor Moore poked a puck free at his blueline, and rushed down the ice on a breakaway. He shot straight at Francouz. Blake Lizotte and Adrian Kempe went two-on-one shorthanded. Kempe kept the puck on the left side and shot it over the net.
Kempe shortly thereafter poked a puck past a Colorado defenseman and went to the net, deked, and lost it. He got a second try but got no bite on the shot.
Kopitar stole a puck at center ice by jumping up into the play. He and Brown went into the Colorado end. It didn’t produce anything, but the play was opportunistic, which is the point here.
Iafallo fired a point-blank slapper from the left dot. No goal, but you get the idea—this team has becoming a running highlight reel. Is Sutter’s influence finally out of their collective brain?
There was also a Jonathan Quick highlight moment. A Colorado puck went to the slot, then was redirected to the goalie’s left, where Ian Cole was waiting for it. He shot, fast, and was robbed by a diving Quick, who came out, chest first, with the catching glove wide open. The puck went into and out of the glove. Beautiful. It was much like his spead-eagle of late last week, a move that his now-backup, Cal Petersen, replicated nicely versus the Wild on Saturday.
Quick also survived a penalty shot, by the way. Valeri Nichushkin was hooked on the way to the net. His penalty shot try saw him go in, slowly circling, and shoot low. Quick made a pad save.
The third period was not so dominated by the Kings. This in part came from an early, softish goal, let in by Quick. The puck was shot from inside the blueline, and eluded him. It might have made a skip off the ice.
But he backed that up with a spectacular leg save shortly after. The puck was passed from Nichushkin to Erik Johnson coming down the slot. Johnson launched a hard, middle-high wrister. Quick went down on one knee and got it with the legs.
And then another. The Kings were sloppy with the puck across their blueline, and Logan O’Connor rushed it in on Quick. He took a high wrister from midway down the right slot. Quick flashed his catching glove up to grab it out of the air.
The Kings got an insurance goal on a beautiful play by Iafallo. He flashed in to the offensive zone, cut to his right across the top of the crease, and backhanded a puck over the goalie.
Nathan MacKinnon, by the way, was by this point no longer in the game. He was hurt in period two and it was announced that he would not return. He played about six minutes of each of the first two periods, with one shot.
So the outcome of the game, in some respects, doesn’t matter. But winning is infectious, and the Kings have now done that six times in a row, a season high. Prior to this streak, their best was a trio of victories consecutively.
Coach McLellan said as much after the game: “It’s fun winning. A lot of times throughout the year I think we’ve played that same game and maybe not had a bounce or didn’t get a timely goal and didn’t get the reward so now we’re starting to get it and that’s a good thing.”
Anderson also weighed in on his young NHL career: “I came up just trying to get a taste of what it was like, trying to get a feel for the league. Just to come up and play my game, I was feeling confident down in Ontario and kind of whatever was going to happen was going to happen. But, so far I’ve been feeling comfortable and I think a lot of that goes to Roysie [Matt Roy] he’s been awesome back there with me.”
LA is in the early phase of a record-tying nine home games in a row. They next play Ottawa (Wednesday), then the Ducks and Habs, Bruins, and on from there.
Colorado goes home for four in a row, starting with the Rangers, then Vancouver.
Jonathan Quick got his 16th win of the season, stopping 21 of 22 shots. He has not lost a game in regulation in the last six games (5-0-1) posting a .956 SV%, a 1.54 GAA and one shutout during that span.
This game was my 650th as a credentialed NHL writer.