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LA Kings vs. St. Louis Blues – Game 5: Expect A Return To Ultra-Tight Checking

LA Kings center Anze Kopitar, shown here during a recent practice session, ended a 20-game goal scoring slump in a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 of their first round playoff series at Staples Center on May 6, 2013.
Photo: David Sheehan/FrozenRoyalty.net

LOS ANGELES — Heading into tonight’s Game 5 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the St. Louis Blues, the Los Angeles Kings cannot afford to think that they’ve found their groove after a 4-3 win in Game 4 at Staples Center on May 6.

Indeed, although their offense awakened, much of that was due to the Blues playing right into the hands of the Kings.

“The turnovers in the neutral zone fed their offense,” said Blues center David Backes. “To have a couple of guys pinching in, giving them a two-on-one and a three-on-one when we’re up 2-0 in the first, that’s not the way to protect a lead. We hung [Blues goalie Brian] Elliott out to dry there. He’s been awesome for us, and we need to be better for him.”

“We made two mistakes, really poor mistakes, to give them odd man rushes to get’em back in the game,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “But even when it was 3-2, they were playing better than we were. We grabbed it for a little while, about seven minutes or so in the third. But we didn’t manage the puck very well in the second and third period, and we paid for it dearly.”

“We need to get back to [how we played] in the first game, and most of the second game, when we were going through all the hard plays, and really committing to that team game, and sacrificing for each other,” Backes stressed. “When we have that commitment, we’re a great team. But when we try to find shortcuts, or easy ways around it, it’s all up for grabs.”

But credit the Kings for finding a way to get their forecheck going, and for getting pucks and bodies to the front of St. Louis net—both the tying and game-winning goals were the result of solid forechecking that forced turnovers, and ended with goals scored from in front of the net.

“We’ve been getting better every game, and it showed last night,” said Kings forward Jeff Carter. “We were skating better, getting on pucks, and using our forecheck more to our advantage. It showed in the end result.”

“It shows [our] character,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar. “We didn’t get scared. We believed, all the way. It was great to come back with two quick ones in the first [period]. After that, we got scored on again, but we battled back again. It shows the resiliency. There’s no quit in our team.”

“If you look at tonight’s game, it was probably the best game we played [in the series],” added Kopitar. “But we still believe we can push a little more. The confidence is there. We got down in a hole, 2-0, and we climbed out of it. Now it’s a matter of winning the next one.”

Kings captain Dustin Brown indicated that the Kings’ physical play was better in Game 4.

“Sometimes physicality isn’t about big hits,” said Brown. “It’s about being hard on pucks, being first to pucks. You’re going to get the big hits, and the rub outs, but it’s being hard on sticks, being under sticks.”

“That’s going to wear on teams,” added Brown. “We need to continue to do that, because they’re not going to [do it to us].”

After Game 4, Hitchcock pointed to the way the Kings played, and issued a challenge to his team, even though he did not say it specifically.

“They took the game to another level, and tonight, we didn’t have an answer,” Hitchcock lamented. “They got momentum off the game [tonight]. I don’t think they got momentum off of Game 3. I thought we deserved a better fate after [that game], but they took the game [tonight]. They were better than we were, they won a lot of puck battles that we’d been winning before.”

Indeed, the Blues were the team winning those battles, especially in Game 1, but also in Game 2. They also won their share of those battles in Game 3. But after taking the early 2-0 lead in Game 4, it was the Kings who were winning them, for the most part.

“They dialed it up,” Hitchcock noted. “There’s another level out there. It’s our job now to [reach that level]. It’s been very intense, hard hockey. They went up to a gear today that we’re going to have to find an answer for.”

“They’ve just got a gear,” Hitchcock added. “They’ve got a gear that they know how to get to. That’s what championship teams do. It’s our job to answer.”

Working in the Kings’ favor is that their top offensive weapons were just that in Game 4…finally.

“Jeff scored a great goal, [right wing Justin Williams has] been good the whole series, and it’s good to see Kopi score,” said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. “That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

“If you covered the playoffs last year, it’s about big goals, not who scores them,” added Sutter. “But at the same time, [the players] who normally leads your team in scoring have to be close to that.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “wait a minute…did I read that right? He said Kopitar scored?”

Yes, that’s right. Anze Kopitar finally broke his twenty-game goal scoring drought with a goal at the 7:14 mark of the third period, tying the game, 3-3.

Before scoring that goal, Kopitar was noticeable in the game for all the wrong reasons—lack of strength on the puck, not getting to the front of the net, not being strong on the puck, no explosive first step, slower then normal skating, losing more than his share of loose puck battles along the boards and in the corners–the list goes on.

In fact, Kopitar’s play in the first three games reminded me of the Campbell Conference Finals in 1993, when Bob McKenzie, who was writing for the Toronto Star at the time, said that then-Kings superstar center Wayne Gretzky, “…looked as though he were skating with a piano on his back.”

Although the circumstances are completely different, the same could have been said about Kopitar. But after the goal, he looked like he had shed the piano. A couple of shifts later, he worked hard in the defensive zone, fought off a check, and muscled a Blues player off the puck, something not seen from him prior to that in the series.

“It’s hard to explain, but any time you’re going through a drought of twenty [games], when you get that one, you feel about 100 pounds lighter, so I felt pretty good after that,” he beamed. “You don’t think about it, but it’s always in the back of your mind, even if you don’t want it to [be]. It was nice to get it out of the way.”

“You always press,” he added. “You always want to break through. Sometimes that backfires, but Brownie made a great play tonight, and I put it in.”

“He wanted to score a lot quicker, but he didn’t allow it to affect the other part of his game, which is huge for our team,” said Brown.

With two straight wins to even the series, 2-2, the Kings would seem to have some momentum heading into tonight’s Game 5. But no one should put too much faith in that giving the Kings much of an advantage.

“Every time you win a couple of games in a row, you gain some momentum,” Kopitar noted. “But we all realize that the next game is going to be a big one, and it’ll be a tough one in their building. It always is, and we’re going to have to get ready for it.”

“We did good things at home,” said Brown. “Now we have to translate that and get going on the road.”

Win A Free, Autographed Copy of Miller’s New Book

Bob Miller, the Voice of the Kings, now in his 40th season calling the action for the Kings, has written a new book, relating stories about the Kings winning the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, along with stories about old and legendary National Hockey League arenas that no longer exist, or no longer have NHL teams. Also included are stories from his first book, Bob Miller’s Tales of the Los Angeles Kings.

You can win an autographed copy of the book, Tales From The Los Angeles Kings Locker Room: A Collection Of The Greatest Kings Stories Ever Told, that came out last month. For information about the book, including Miller’s thoughts about it, as well as contest details, check out this story: Win An Autographed Copy Of Hall of Fame Announcer Bob Miller’s New Book About LA Kings 2012 Stanley Cup Run.


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