LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — With Game 4 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks coming up tonight (April 21, 7:00 PM PDT at Staples Center), much of the focus has been on the Canucks’ inept penalty-killing, which has allowed seven power play goals on just twelve chances after three games.
The result: the Canucks are looking up at a 2-1 series deficit with a huge challenge ahead of them…fixing their penalty-killing woes.
But the problem for the Canucks is not just their penalty-killing. More to the point, their problem is two-fold and they go by the names Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, the young studs on the Kings’ blue line.
Indeed, the twenty-year-old Doughty and the 23-year-old Johnson are still very young, relatively inexperienced defensemen. But in the three games played in this series they have totally outclassed the Vancouver blue line corps, contributed huge minutes in situations where they were called upon to shut down the Canucks’ top forwards, and they have been unstoppable on the power play.
Throughout the regular season, Canucks forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin proved to be a deadly forward combination, with Henrik attaining superstar status after leading the league in scoring with 29 goals and 83 assists for 112 points in 82 games.
But through three playoff games against the Kings, the Sedin twins have combined for just two goals and four assists for six points.
Neither has scored a power play goal.
If you find all that hard to believe, you are not alone. Nevertheless, solid defensive play by Kings center Michal Handzus, who has gone up against the Sedin twins as often as Kings head coach Terry Murray can get him on the ice, along with Doughty’s smart defensive zone play, have combined to put a huge clamp on the Sedin twins.
But wait…there’s more.
If you thought Doughty was dominating in the defensive zone, what adjective can be used to describe what he has done on the power play, especially now that he has been paired with Johnson when the Kings have the man advantage?
How about “spectacular,” “unbelievable,” “extraordinary…” you get the idea.
The fact that the Kings are seven-for-twelve (58.33 percent) on the power play in the three games of this series is largely due to the play of Doughty and Johnson, who have brought an entirely new dynamic to the Kings’ power play.
“A big part of the success now is because of what they’re doing on the back end,” Murray explained. “I’m big on having the activity start from the blue line and when you have players like Doughty and Johnson, who can move across the blue line backwards in a passing/shooting position as well as anyone in the league, when you have that kind of a look, you’re not pulling the puck across in front of you—it’s in a shooting position as well as a passing position.”
“Then you’re going to create some hesitancy,” Murray elaborated. “You’re going to make players commit. They’ll start to go down for blocked shots and then [Doughty and Johnson] can hold on, pull it another couple of feet and then they have a wrist shot to the net.”
“It gives you a real weapon, a dangerous look.”
Given the incredible potency of the Kings’ power play, “dangerous” is a tremendous understatement and the weapon Murray described would be more like a Sherman Tank.
Doughty has been on the Kings’ first power play unit all season long and has consistently been a primary threat and point producer with the man advantage. But the addition of Johnson to the mix has raised their game to a new level.
“I loved what [Johnson] did with his agility and mobility on the blue line, lateral movement, looking people off, getting wrist shots to the net,” Murray beamed. “He’s such a strong kid and he has that knack for getting the puck to the net.”
“A lot of defenseman can make those moves, but the puck hits a skate or a leg—it doesn’t quite get to the net,” Murray added. “But he has the knack that pucks do end up at the net and then you’ve got those second and third opportunities. That’s a skill in itself.”
Johnson has always had the offensive skill, but when paired with Doughty on the power play earlier in the season, the two never clicked. But all that has changed in the post-season.
“First and foremost, he and I are having fun out there,” said Johnson. “We’re able to create things and take what’s given to us. There’s no secret to it. We’re just firing the puck and [Kings forwards are] getting there for loose pucks and winning battles. When we shoot the puck, they’re retrieving the puck well and we’re keeping the pressure on.”
“We think a lot alike, which helps on the ice,” added Johnson. “If you’re thinking alike, you don’t need the extra signals. You just read and react, and I think we’re doing that well.”
Keeping the penalty-killers off-balance and guessing has also been a key to their success.
“We have a couple of different elements since he’s a lefty and I’m a righty,” Doughty noted. “We can switch and we’ll be on our off sides for one-timers Other times, we’ll be on our strong sides to make passes. It’s been great. We’re pretty happy.”
“Drew and I are trying not to ever do the same thing twice,” Johnson explained. “Once you become predictable, you get in trouble, especially in a seven-game series. I think that’s one of our strengths. I don’t think we’re predictable.”
Despite the mobility and puck-handling skill Doughty and Johnson possess, they are not making the flashy plays. Rather, they are keeping things simple.
“If we get a chance to shoot, we’re shooting,” said Johnson. “If not, we’re moving. We’re not doing anything special. We’re just taking [what they’re giving to us].”
And there lies part of the Canucks’ problem…giving the Kings too much while on the penalty-kill.
“We’re not getting it done,” Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault lamented. “Shot blocking is a big part of it. We’ve got guys who have that capability and a lot of that is the willingness to get in front of those shots. We’ve got to start doing that more regularly.”
But Vigneault admitted after Game 3 on April 19 at Staples Center that his team has its hands full with Doughty and Johnson.
“Those two guys are highly-skilled players,” said Vigneault. “They move really well laterally, they’re able to, through dekes, open up lanes and get their shots through. They’re tough to handle and we’ve got 48 hours to find a solution.”
One of the ways the Canucks have tried to handle Doughty has been through intimidation, both physical and verbal.
But Doughty is taking it all in stride.
“I know that I’m a key guy in their minds,” he said. “They don’t want me playing my game and they want me in the [penalty] box more than on the ice. It’s a good thing to know you’re in the other team’s head.”
“If I had Drew Doughty on the other team, I’d do the same thing,” said Murray. “I remember coaching against the New York Rangers with Brian Leetch at the same time in his career. He was talked about all the time in our team meetings. He was critical guy to take care of. You have to play hard against him and make him pay the price every time the puck is dumped into his corner.”
“[Doughty has] stayed focused and composed.”
But Doughty was not all that composed during a Game 3 incident when he dished out some serious yapping of his own.
In response to taunts from the Vancouver bench, he responded in kind.
“Keep yapping buddy, keep yapping,” Doughty said calmly, the incident captured on the Fox Sports West telecast of the game where one could easily read his lips. “I’ve got all day. Come down my way, come down my way. Come down here. I’ll [expletive] hip check the [expletive] out of you.”
Doughty’s play throughout the regular season and through three playoff games, not to mention his response to the taunts from the Canucks bench detailed above, should tell you everything you need to know about why he is getting so much attention as a likely finalist for the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the best defenseman in the National Hockey League this season.
Vigneault and the Canucks find themselves in a big, big hole going into Game 4 and are likely to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at the Kings power play. Despite that, the Kings remain confident.
“We’ve got a good swagger to our power play right now, knowing that when we go out, we’re expecting to score, and if we don’t score, we want to create some good momentum for the team and get something going,” said Johnson.
With Vancouver superstar goaltender Roberto Luongo struggling and with their penalty-kill on life support, facing a team with that much confidence in their power play could spell doom for the Canucks.
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.