It’s easy to dismiss the Carolina Hurricanes, if you’re looking from out West. They’re from the south. They’ve lost their stars. Their roster, aside from Jeff Skinner, is a gang of nobodies, with the only person left from the Cup team of 2006 the goalie, Cam Ward. And many people think he’s seen his brighter days.
So when they came into LA Thursday night, it was odd to note that they were just two points behind the Kings in season production to date, albeit with the Kings having played just 25 games to the Canes’ 26.
Maybe that’s why Sutter started backup Jeff Zatkoff after having played Peter Budaj in every game the team has played since Oct. 18. Or maybe he was just thinking the guy’s exhausted. Wouldn’t you be? Budaj’s record, incidentally, is 12-7-2. Zatkoff’s is 1-3-0, but all the losses came in the first three games of the season, the first of which saw him come in in relief of an injured Jonathan Quick to play about 39 minutes. His next date? Relief duty for two periods on November 11th. And then a win, finally, on December 1st at Arizona. In that, he played just 40 minutes.
This must be some kind of record. They guy had appeared in five games prior to Thursday, and in only one had he played more than two periods. Finally, it was his chance.
And his defense completely let him down. In the first, Martinez and Muzzin got beat by Andrej Nestrasil and Derek Ryan. The defense lost Ryan as he skated down the left side. The puck came to him, and he buried it. The keeper had no chance at all.
In the second, with the Kings ending an anemic power play, Brock McGinn and Ryan went down toward the LA end. They passed it back and forth, with the second to last being backhand to Ryan from McGinn. Ryan buried the puck to score his second of the night and third of the season. The goalie, again, had no chance. One LA player was back.
Meanwhile on offense, Zatkoff was getting absolutely no help. The Kings and Canes had five and six shots in period one, respectively. In the second, the home team got 12, but nothing particularly scary, despite two power play chances. Hard to win a game when you have precisely zero goal support, right?
Not that the Kings’ backup looked great all the time. In period one, he was beat as he went down on a shot by Jeff Skinner after he whirled out from behind the net. The puck hit the post. On another play, Zatkoff was caught out at the side of his net to his right. So far out that he didn’t even have contact with the crease. In the second, he got lost out to the left side of the cage. The puck came out front diagonally to Phillip Di Giuseppe (see what I mean by the no-name-recognition thing?), who shoveled it toward the net. The goalie came back and smothered it by lying on it.
The Kings did get a couple of good chances on those shots in the second, namely a shot to the net with Carter right at the crease whacking at it early in the period and a Jordan Nolan snapshot that came off a give-and-go. That one was right into Cam Ward’s gut.
Meanwhile, Sutter was playing mixie-matchie with his lines. He had Trevor Lewis back closer to where he belongs after yanking him from the top trio with Kopitar and Gaborik. Gaborik meantime was with Brown and Dowd. Kopitar was with Carter and King. And later on, I spotted Gaborik with Pearson and Dowd.
Period three saw the Kings make the only really great play of the game for them, off a faceoff. The puck went from Gaborik to Doughty at the point, a good pass considering Gaborik was pretty close to the Carolina net at the time. Doughty shot toward the near side, a puck that eluded Kopitar on its way into the net. 3-1, but the Canes had already scored a goal in the period, again on a defensive breakdown by LA.
The play was a giveaway by Muzzin that Victor Rask eventually put off the wall to McGinn, who broke across the slot and fired it past the blocker of Zatkoff.
Poor Zatkoff. He took the loss, and his save percentage numbers went to Hades along with it—three goals allowed on just 18 shots. At the other end, Ward was decent but not great, but he was made third star. (Someone in LA doesn’t know much about hockey, eh?)
The Hurricanes came in with 63 goals for and 71 against. That’s a minus eight diff. The Kings were precisely even at 66-66. The teams left it like this: LA minus two, Carolina better at minus six. Both players and coach of the visiting team credited their defensive style for the win, but that wasn’t it.
Neither was it Ward’s outstanding goalkeeping, though he did allow just the one on 22 LA shots. It was the Kings. They had nothing.
Sutter tried two experiments in the third. In one, he had Toffoli with Gaborik and Kopitar. Good idea, two speedsters and the best puck control man west of the Mississippi. Nothing came of it.
The other was Jordan Nolan up with Pearson and Carter, a new sort of 70s line. That was rewarded with Nolan flying all over the ice and recording three shots (two with this line) to tie Carter and Doughty for team high. In fact, “reward” might be the right word—Sutter sending a message that those who work hardest work most. But again, nothing resulted.
After the game, on TV, Sutter described his team’s effort as “horseshit.” And they didn’t bleep it. Maybe someone in LA does know something about hockey after all.
Jordan Nolan’s tooth story will appear on the LA King’s website soon—written by the talented and personable Debbie Lew. Look for it.
Please dare to follow me on Twitter @growinguphockey.
And buy one of my books as a Christmas present. Facing Wayne Gretzky is one you might like.