The scoring for the Pittsburgh Penguins is all at the bottom of the lineup—if you go numerically. Think about this: from 71 (Malkin) to 87 (you know who) the Pens had 36 points coming into Thursday night, when they faced the LA Kings. They would add three more on a pair of goals by Crosby, although it wouldn’t lead to the win.
Those Kings, by contrast, had only 25 points out of their four best scorers to date, regardless of sweater number. But that’s to be expected when you have a more than 200 minute scoring drought stretching back three full games, a period, and change, as the LA team had.
What gives? It’s not the LA style of play, which is still pretty tight but is, at least at times, opening up under Sutter of late. It’s not the shots on goal, which have numbered as many as 45 (in the team’s win against Nashville) and are generally comfortably over 30 night after night (and 27 versus the Pens). No, it’s not the numbers which tell the story. It’s the lack of numbers. Nobody on this team can put the puck in the net.
And everybody thought that they had to worry about the goaltending, especially once Quick went down.
The Kings reeled into Thursday with 30 goals against, two more than the Penguins. And they sat within a whisper of seven of the teams in the West. But the Penguins had 30 goals for, whereas LA had but 20. Hence a goal diff of -10, where the Pens had a +2. Other numbers in the league: Montreal at +20, which is insane this early, and the Rangers at +18. In the West, the three other teams with the Kings at the bottom of the Pacific stand at -8 or -10. But that’s on the strength, at least in two of the three cases (Calgary and Arizona) of awful goaltending.
To repeat: not having Quick has hurt the Kings only in the sense that they like to use what I’ve long labeled the “Terry Murray strategy,” which is to score one goal and get a shutout every night. Not very likely to succeed long-term, right?
But Budaj has been OK, if not spectacular against the Ducks Tuesday night, with a 2.37 GAA and a not-so-terrific .900 save percentage. Nobody has whooped up on the Kings, either, except Minnesota, which doubled them up at 6-3 early in the year. Of late, it’s been two or three goals, or even just one, that the opponents have scored, until Tuesday, when the Ducks got four.
So what’s to be done? The Kings have little movement in their lineup. They had Greene in for McNabb on D (third game in a row), and Greene scored one of his rare goals. They have Tom Gilbert out, suspended, and in his place, Kevin Gravel. And they have two fourth-line-type switches: Purcell in and Nolan out (though the former was playing with Kopitar and Pearson) and Andreoff hurt and Shore in (playing on the fourth line with Clifford and Lewis). They also scored, which I’ll detail in a moment.
No, the team can’t score much, though they could use some luck. That’s what happened to break the long scoreless streak against Pittsburgh. The Pens had been leading 1-0 since one-third of the way through the first period, when Crosby had scored off a shot from the point after two Kings, Forbort on D and King on offense, had given up the puck.
The LA lucky moment came with Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis (Nick Shore the third man on this line, but not figuring into the sterling moment I am about to describe) on the ice. Lewis passed the puck to Clifford, who returned the pass and saw it bloop off of Lewis’s stick and then hit the goalie stick of Marc-Andre Fleury and go between his legs. At the time, the shots were 15 for LA, eight for the Penguins.
The game was actually almost as close as the score indicated. The Pens might have been tired from a 5-1 win down the road in Anaheim the night before, but they weren’t charging. Every once in a while, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel would dazzle, but the weren’t “all over the ice,” or whatever cliché for dominant you would wish to insert. After the game, their coach would comment on this, saying, “I just think it was one of those games. They’re hard to play against since they have a lot of structure through the neutral zone. . . . I just didn’t think we had our legs like we’d like to have them when we’re at our best.”
What he didn’t say is that the Kings were getting away with mistakes, turnovers which mostly ended up not creating the chances that they might have against a team this powerful. And so it went, the second frame ending with the Kings ahead in shots 17-11 and probably feeling like they at least had a chance to win given the 1-1 tie.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, might already have been worrying themselves about the third station of their California experience, which is obviously San Jose, where they’ll be on Saturday. Or maybe not, but they came out flat in the third, with only intermittent spurts of genius. As Coach Sullivan said, “I don’t think there were a whole lot of chances on either side. It was one of those games where you have to fight for every inch of ice to try to get pucks to the net or try to get quality chances.”
So the Pens saw the Kings go up 2-1 on the Greene goal, then tied the game when Crosby redirected a puck off the shaft of his stick. Of course this was on purpose. The shots were 22 for LA versus 21 for Pittsburgh at this stage, which was tighter than they’d been earlier on.
So the teams went to OT, with Pittsburgh in the box to boot. The Kings didn’t capitalize, but irony of ironies, they did once it was again three-on-three. Nic Dowd got his second goal of the year when a puck came to him in front. He deked, deked, deked, with about five seconds on time, and tucked it past Fleury.
After the game, I asked him about the time he had. “It was all reaction. I’m normally more of a shooter, especially with the ice being as bad as it was. I think my first reaction was to one-time it, but then things started to process in my brain. Me specifically, I’d rather react than have too much time.”
Did he see the open side? “No, I just did a fake shot, waited, waited, and waited, then pulled it to the side and luckily that was open.”
By about a foot. After the game, I observed Fleury going over the goal in his head, body moving too, as if he could retroactively save it. No dice. The game was over at 3-2.
LA has still not won in regulation this year.
The Kings have Calgary on Saturday. The crosstown Ducks play both Friday and Sunday.
Please read my book Facing Wayne Gretzky. Then let me know what you think.