The arena in Los Angeles was full Friday night. This is a departure from normal, where a full house includes a lot of ghosts in seats that are sold by license. That is, a good deal of the lower bowl—empty. However it happened, there were very few gaps for empty seat cushions with Edmonton in town. That was one way you could tell it was the playoffs. But aside from that, honestly, things didn’t feel much different from any other game.
There was no great shaking of the building with cheers before the game began, unlike in Edmonton for nights one and two of the Kings-Oilers series. According to one observer I spoke with, before they were told to on Monday and Wednesday nights, the Oilers fans were on their feet, screaming, waving their free white towels.
The Kings fans, by contrast, had to be coaxed off their seats, with lasers, bright lights, and very, very loud noise and music artificially producing the desired effect. Even then, just after the puck was dropped, everyone was back in a sitting position. Little happened in the first period to urge them up again.
There was a hit by Darnell Nurse on Viktor Arvidsson, a knee-on-ankle type of thing that got Nurse reviewed for a major before the call ended up being two for tripping, offset by a minor to Arvidsson. That got the masses squawking for a while. Then the place went back to sleep.
Finally at 19:27, after a nothing play that had a bunch of players gathered at the left boards jamming for a puck, the puck went out to Matt Roy at the left point. He floated a shot towards the net. Alec Iafallo whacked at it in the air and managed to bat it past Stuart Skinner. It was only the seventh shot of the period for the Kings. But how about this: The Oilers managed to fire just five pucks at Joonas Korpisalo in the opening twenty minutes.
One play not ending in a shot on net was Connor McDavid waltzing through the entirety of the five Kings on the ice and flipped a puck at the net, not getting an official shot but thrilling with his ability in tight spaces.
In large measure, the Kings controlled the period. The key was the hitting. The Kings were credited with 22 hits, the Oilers with 15. This, as we all know, can be a homer stat, but not in this instance. The Kings were pounding everyone every time they got the chance. They were also backing up instead of forechecking, going three across in the neutral zone with one guy high towards the blue line. This meant, as you can guess, that the Oilers often could not get started. That vaunted speed was stalled—for the moment.
Period two changed everything. McDavid scored on the power play at 7:42 on a shot he took from the left dot. He put it up and over the far side, glove hand of the netminder. At 9:22, with the Kings having taken another penalty, McDavid did it again. Same spot. This time the shot went up and over the near side of the goalie and into the net. Finally, he was rolling.
Not so fast.
If the Kings’ key to losing this series is to put the Oilers on the power play, the Oilers’ key to losing this series is exactly that same formula, but with the Kings. This is why on an ill-advised unsportsmanlike conduct call to Draisaitl, the Kings made them pay. It was an Arvidsson pass that rifled down the ice and off the end boards, coming to Kempe charging in and taking a one-timer slapshot that blasted Skinner off his feet and made the game 2-2. He said between periods that he and Arvidsson had been talking about the play for the past couple of weeks, but that they hadn’t had a chance to try it until this moment.
Shortly after, for the second time in the night, a Kings’ player was down but ended up with an even-up penalty situation when Evander Kane threw Drew Doughty into the boards and left him lying on the ice. Kane got a boarding penalty. Doughty got an interference call. This kind of intensity, hard-hitting and freewheeling, was starting to affect the crowd, now more vocal than they had been all night.
There were moments when it seemed like this game was slipping from the referees’ control. Cheap shots to ankles with sticks after plays ended, hard hits with just a hint of butt end thrown in, that kind of thing. But with the score tied 2-2 after two periods, both coaches must have been demanding discipline in the period break. One goal, the way this was going, might be all the more scoring there would be. The question was which period it would be in—the third, fourth, fifth? Personally, I was hoping for some OT. And my wish came true.
Here’s the formula that led to the Kings’ win: They would back up in a one-three-one position, as earlier mentioned. The Oilers then would come slowly out of their zone, and eventually throw the puck into the Kings’ end and chase it. Problem is, they weren’t as heavy on their checks as the Kings, and the LA team would thus end up with it, take a bang or two, and be on their way down towards the Edmonton end.
The only exception was on power play time, as earlier said, a bad idea to allow this Alberta team. But the Kings did it again just short of halfway in period three This produced the best save of the night on the Kings’ goalie’s part, on McDavid’s shot. It was wristed from the right dot, a rising wrister that Korpisalo caught up high on the shoulder as he came out towards the shot.
The Oilers then took a penalty of their own, for Klim Kostin lying on top of Alec Iafallo in the Kings slot. Stupid. The game wasn’t concluded in the third period despite these misadventures. In fact, it would take another penalty, slashing to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, for the Kings to win on a power play goal. The penalty was of the necessary variety, with Iafallo having the puck as he cruised across the slot. The goal was scored by Trevor Moore, after which there was a long delay for a potential high stick violation before the puck went in the net.
Tick tock went the clock for what must have been five minutes, both teams milling about in their half of the ice. Finally the call on the ice was deemed upheld. The Kings have a 2-1 series lead.
After, Coach Jay Woodcroft of the Oilers, said, “When the best player in the world is two feet away, as it happens, and his arm goes straight in the air, because he knows what happened, or otherwise he wouldn’t put his arm up, he would have kept on playing, it appears to me that … in the end, I’m going to go with [him].” Well, he’s not the referee, nor the video judge, so that’s kind of not the point.
The Kings’ coach, Todd McLellan, said he didn’t know there was a review at first. Then, “Both teams stand there, and it’s out of our hands.” He wasn’t dwelling on the tense moment, but rather moving on to what needs to be righted in the Kings’ game, namely the need to stay even strength rather than taking penalties.
Nothing is settled yet between these teams, of course, but the Kings are finding ways to win despite their mistakes, and the Oilers, McDavid’s two goals notwithstanding, are learning that it’s not just two great players who can carry a team. The game is too complex for that. But McLellan did credit Draisaitl and McDavid: “They’re very good players. They tax the other team…. It takes a lot of work to play against [the two of them]. You have to remember the other guys that are playing with them are pretty darned good players too.” He cited the damage they create against opponents on the scoresheet, but said, “There’s a lot of other things those two do that make it hard on us, and we’re aware of those things, and we have to keep doing what we’re doing. In fact, we have to be better.”
Sunday 6 p.m. local time, his team will try to extend their series lead to 3-1, while the Oilers will be looking to get even and make this a three-game series to win.
Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. He is the author of Growing Up Hockey and other books on various topics.