Drew Doughty said a few weeks ago that the Kings know how to play a certain way and can do it consistently since they’ve been at it a long while. What was he talking about? The confident, defensively excellent style that has won them two recent Stanley Cups. Well, Thursday night against San Jose, they didn’t do that. They were sloppy and behind the play a lot. The Sharks controlled the puck and, especially in periods two and three, the faceoff dot. LA looked confused at times, not the machine-like bastion of control that fans have come to expect them to be under Sutter.
Between games one and two, the coach made two adjustments and one pronouncement that suggested the direction he would be taking the team.
The first adjustment was to add Marion Gaborik, newly off IR after being out with a knee injury. Scratches included Andy Andreoff and Kyle Clifford, both fourth-liners. They were replaced, though not in a one-for-one kind of way, by Gaborik and Nick Shore.
When Gaborik was announced as a starter, he got a huge cheer, as big as that for Jonathan Quick. It seemed like people were both excited and surprised by his return. Gaborik would play with Kopitar and Lucic (at first), which meant the remaining LA forward trios looked like this: “That Seventies line” (Carter with Toffoli and Pearson); Lewis, Shore, and King; and Versteeg, Lecavalier, and Brown.
But late in period one, Lucic was dropped down and Brown brought up to play with Gaborik and Carter. Lucic then played with Lewis and Shore. But he was further redeemed as period two went on when he found himself placed with Carter and Toffoli.
How’d that work out? Well, both Lucic and Toffoli got minor penalties on the same whistle, putting the Kings down 5-on-3. How often do you see that on the same stoppage?
It didn’t take long for the Sharks to attack. (Bad joke. Tweet me @growinguphockey to tell me so, please.) They peppered Quick with shots, and they got their second goal when a rebound came out to the left side for Pavelski. He shot, and the rebound went to Couture, who put it into the wide open net. Quick was out of the way to his right having slid out to make the second save. (The first goal, if you’re wondering, had happened at 3:37 of period one, on shot number one.)
Sutter’s other adjustment was to subtract Alec Martinez, who had played just into the second period of Game 1 and apparently re-injured himself, though Sutter was mum about the details after Thursday’s game. In his place was Jamie McBain, and also on the roster, but scratched, was Kevin Gravel, a call-up from Ontario. Gravel had previously had three call-ups, and he got into five games this year in the regular season.
The pronouncement that Sutter made most vehemently was about faceoff wins, and especially goals that come off of faceoffs. He said Thursday night that center-on-center is an important role, especially after a faceoff loss. At practice, according to LA Kings Insider John Rosen’s report on Saturday, he added commentary specifically naming Kopitar for losing track of Pavelski after a draw. That led to a goal by the Sharks’ captain, of which Sutter lamented “We have to be better than that,” as was reported in the press.
The Kings as a team also said that they wanted to be better on the forecheck and to deal better with the San Jose forecheck. Come Saturday night, maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. It didn’t much matter, as the Sharks swallowed up (there I go again, unintentionally) every loose puck and beat the Kings down in every area of the ice, and the game. They peppered Quick with shots, at one point around midway leading 15-7.
When the Kings did have their chance, as on a power play in period two, they couldn’t move the puck. They seemed to figure out that Doughty would be left alone for one-timers on the left side of the zone, and so tried to exploit that, only to see their star defenseman launch the puck repeatedly over the net.
Gaborik drew a cheer after the power play was over with a play where he picked up a loose puck after a faceoff and launched a slippery wrister at the net. Jones saved it, as he had all the others. He was steady. Quick was good, too, but he was so run around by the Sharks’ puck movement that he looked more frazzled than usual. It was only because of the arsenal of attack that was so varied against him.
Period two, second half, saw the Kings looking a little more alive. They ended the period on the power play and having launched some shots at the net to make it 13 for them, with San Jose at 16. Their power play was better at the end of the period than earlier on or in period one. In the first, the Kings had thrown the puck at the net on soft wristers, which seems like a popular strategy around the NHL right now. The second try, period two, saw Doughty launching the aforementioned cannons, wide and high. The third try, Lucic at least parked himself at the edge of the net. And the puck came to him. But he shanked on it and put it wide from no distance to the net.
Bad luck? Failure to capitalize on opportunity? Maybe, but more than that, the Kings just weren’t making things happen. They were happy, instead, to stay on the outside.
Meanwhile, San Jose was taking nothing for granted. For instance, with the first period waning and their power play about to end, they buzzed the net and got three dangerous chances. Then they got Quick to dive out for a loose puck and got three more. But they never hurried. Rather, they just wait for the chances, and passed so accurately. They would have scored a goal at this point, also, but for Luke Schenn lying down on the goal line to make a save with Quick out of position. As said earlier, in period two, they did get that second goal. The second period ended with shots at 16-14 San Jose, so some life for LA.
Period three would go a long way in determining the series. Would LA go up north having completely killed their home ice advantage, or would they play more like themselves, erase the two-goal lead, rattle the kid goalie in the SJ net, and have a chance?
Well, Sutter mixed his lines up some more, putting Pearson with Brown and Lecavalier. He then dropped Versteeg down to play with Lewis and Shore. Then Lucic was seen with Gaborik and Kopitar once more. Then it was Carter with King and Toffoli.
Carter was the most visible and effective Kings forward in the late going. He sprung Gaborik with a short pass through center. The returned star put the puck high and wide, just past the crossbar. Then Lucic passed one to Carter, and he drew a penalty on the Sharks’ Karlsson.
That power play finally allowed the Kings to break down Jones’s wall. The goal came at 14:59 after the mightiest scramble in front that I’ve seen in a long while. The Kings seemed like the launched the puck into the crowd as it collapsed around Jones about five times. Finally, it came loose to the right side to Lecavalier, who put it in.
It was 2-1, there were about five to go, and the shots were finally in LA’s favor, 27-23.
They then pressed to tie it, pulling the goalie with about two to go. The shots remained what I just said. How? How do you get no shots on goal in five minutes, a good portion of which you have an advantage due to a yanked netminder?
Ask the Kings. Sutter, for his part, had no answer. Instead, he focused on what he liked, saying “Tonight was much better than the first game” in terms of generating offense. “For most of you, generating offense would mean scoring, right?”
What were we supposed to say? How about, “We get that, Darryl. You’re telling us we don’t understand anything about hockey.” But nobody did. And no, that’s not what the majority of the LA press corps thinks. Most of us have a hockey background. So we know that when you get very few dangerous chances, do nothing on your power play, and give the puck up over and over, you’re not playing good hockey. You’re not generating chances. You’re not winning.
“The difference in the series right now is that Pavelski line.” At least Sutter can recognize when the opposition is playing well. But you know what? So could anyone who tallied his points thus far, and his linemates’. Pavelski alone has three goals and an assist.
To return to LA, Quick in net has been very good despite losing two games. Some are saying he’s often out of position, but that’s the result of his having to fly from side to side of the net because the Sharks move the puck across the attacking zone so well. He made at least a couple of sterling saves on Saturday night, just to keep it close.
And finally, back to Sutter: he thought that Gaborik was his best winger and McBain the best defenseman for the Kings, and he was a little critical of his top players. He said that some of the line switching was to keep Gaborik’s shifts short since he hadn’t played much, and he didn’t name the weaker players specifically, but they outed themselves, Kopitar, for one, saying the team has to play better. The personal pronoun, fans might add, would be much appreciated when you express that idea.
San Jose’s coach said it was a hard-fought game, “Two teams fully invested, and I thought our guys did a really good job showing up and playing that type of game.” He said that his team is deep, and that they take “a lot of pride in defending.”
His goalie, Martin Jones, “Gives our team a sense of composure back there by the way he’s playing.” He’s hoping the roll carries on. “I was really happy with our game . . . . We kept our discipline and found a way to win. I don’t think we have to worry about overconfidence. We’ve got a lot of respect for LA, and we know they’re a long way from done, but our group, we’ve still got other levels, and we can play better even than we have so far in the series.”
The teams resume play Monday night in San Jose.
You can reach me @growinguphockey on twitter.