Tuning up or sliding in—which are the LA Kings doing as the post-season looms? There didn’t seem to be much of a sense of urgency as they wound their way through the last handful of regular-season games. Now, they ready themselves for the same opponent as last year, the Edmonton Oilers. In fact, even in playing the Edmonton team in late March and early April, they didn’t show much in 2-0 and 3-1 late-season losses.
The Kings were a flat 5-5 in the ten games ending the season. They lost three games in a row before beating two teams they had every right to defeat, Vancouver and Anaheim. That’s a shame, in a way, since tougher opponents might have a better test, or at least demanded more serious attention. This not because the games mattered so much as for LA to measure themselves against the kinds of teams they’re going to have to go through to come out of the Western Conference.
Coach McLellan, speaking after the Saturday (April 8th) game versus Colorado, a 4-3 loss, was somewhat noncommittal on what he saw the immediate future bringing. “We’re going to continue to play hard and fix some of the things that are broken, and then when the playoffs start, it’s a brand-new year. You’re going to hear everybody say that. Everything’s up for grabs.”
Colorado, at the time a potential playoff opponent for LA, was the kind of test they needed. And the Kings came out fast and overwhelmed the Avalanche with shots early and middle of the game. Nothing went in, and they got down 2-0, but they came back to tie the game before letting it get away from them.
On this same question of playoff preparation, IH asked Colorado’s coach Bednar, after the Avs squeaked past the Ducks on last Sunday night in OT, what his philosophy was in using these run-up games before the post season. His answer was the same as Nathan MacKinnon’s had been earlier in the night in the dressing room after the game.
Bednar: “For us right now, we’re just trying to take care of business in the regular season. It varies year to year where we sit in the standings, what’s going on in the playoff race, but right now, we’re focused on trying to get home ice.
MacKinnon: “We want home ice. We had home ice through the West last season.”
Back to the Kings: they are still working off the disgraceful game they played against Vegas in Nevada on April 6th. In fact, McLellan used it as a touchstone when talking about how his team was currently going, saying last Saturday evening (April 8th): “If we were a disaster in Vegas, which we were, and didn’t have a response tonight, we would be really concerned. We were a disaster in Vegas, that was our, we laid an egg there . . . we responded well [tonight]”. As noted, they still lost.
Just to give a brief point of comparison in the Western Conference, the Oilers in the late going of the regular season won nine of ten, Colorado eight of ten, and the Golden Knights six of ten with some OT points thrown in. In fact, nobody in the top ten in the West was as mediocre as LA has been entering the last week of the season. Only Minnesota had as few wins (five), but the Wild were 5-3-2 to the Kings five wins an five losses.
Entering the last week of the season, watchers wondered whether the Vancouver game Monday night would allow for an LA bounce-back, some signs of bearing down and worrying about what matters? Well, not so much. The Kings came out passive and flat, allowing more shots than they took in the early going. Their power play, further, got absolutely nowhere in one chance in period one and ditto for frame two. They did score a goal on a close-in play that Kaliyev whacked into the net from on top of the crease.
Even with that, the very large Fan Appreciation night crowd was barely in voice. Most of the night, you could almost hear whispered conversations going on around the arena. Where was the urgency, the energy?
LA did get it going somewhat in the second after Vancouver’s Dries hit LA’s Lizotte kinda sorta at the boards, an interference play if anything, and Durzi stepped in and fought Dries. Got his clock cleaned, too, but made a big deal of the affair as he went to the box, probably an effort to rally his team. Fortunately for the Kings, Vancouver didn’t score on the roughing minor Durzi took alongside his fighting major.
More shocking was seeing Adrian Kempe fight JT Miller right off a faceoff after an exchange of whacks with the sticks going up and down the ice. Yikes—McLellan’s face after was blanched. What if the superstar breaks a finger with a week to go before the post-season? The Kings desperately need those goals.
Vancouver ended up bowing out with the Kings scoring three goals in a shutout. What was left for the Kings was two days rest and a game Thursday night against Anaheim in the OC. Anaheim obviously had little to play for except a better draft choice—by losing. By rites, Thursday shouldn’t be much of a game, but they were advertising the good old “Freeway Faceoff” in Honda Center Sunday night in anticipation of the team’s final game of the season, trying to render the game meaningful, it would seem.
LA won the game, 5-3, but the scoring was see-saw back and forth and the Kings were buoyed by a Kempe hat trick to come out on top.
Now what? Edmonton again for as many as seven games. The Kings lost to the Oilers in seven last year in the first round in a compelling series. Edmonton is entering the playoffs with all sails deployed and the wind catching them fully. We all know that three Edmonton players—McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins are 100-plus pointers this regular season. The PP of Edmonton is historically good, too. Some see that as less a weapon in the playoffs, given that the refs tend to call less, but Edmonton scores goals at a torrid clip at even strength, too.
Can the Kings get up from their semi-doldrums and rally to make this a series? They’d better do it early. They’re likely to get a revved-up Oilers group, and if those guys take off and leave you, you’re never catching up.
LA is short two scorers, Kevin Fiala and Gabriel Vilardi. Those are holes that nobody else, save Kempe and Kopitar, has stood up to fill. This means the Kings will have to rely on their defense, and they are obviously blessed with two of the best defensive centers in the league in Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. The Kings, further, are about even with the Oilers in terms of wins and losses head-to-head over the past couple of seasons, so there’s history.
Complicating things for both teams would seem to be goalie assignments. The Kings had a great season out of Pheonix Copley at 24-6-3, but they appear ready to start Joonas Korpisalo, whom they acquired at the trade deadline for Jonathan Quick plus picks. He has been 7-3-1 with LA since then. He started the last two regular season games.
For Edmonton, will rookie Stuart Skinner parlay his 24-14-5 rookie season into post-season success? The Oilers website has McDavid praising him for his sparkling rookie year, but the pressure will be on starting Monday, when the series opens in Alberta.