EL SEGUNDO, CA — Going into the Los Angeles Kings’ first round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks, if someone predicted that their third line of Kyle Clifford, Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds would account for six goals and seven assists for 13 points after five games, they would be quickly dismissed as being insane.
Further, if anyone predicted that Clifford, a wet-behind-the-ears, twenty-year-old rookie who is known for more for throwing his weight around, would lead the team in playoff scoring with three goals and two assists for five points, they would probably be laughed at.
But those nutty predictions have proven to be prescient, as Clifford, Richardson and Simmonds have been the Kings’ top line, not their third line that is only expected to be an energy line, a checking line. Indeed, they have led the way offensively for the heavily defensive-oriented Kings, who trail the Sharks in the series, 3-2, with Game 6 scheduled for tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Richardson line has used speed, physical play and tenacity to win more than their share of loose puck battles and foot races, and they have generated far more quality scoring chances than anyone could have possibly expected, especially when you consider that the three are not among the Kings’ top six forwards.
The line, which was put together late in the regular season, has developed chemistry in a big way.
“Our line’s been going well since we were put together,” said Clifford. “We play hard, we’re all energy guys, we have some offensive ability, and we’re strong in our defensive zone. We’ve had trials throughout the year, where it was [Simmonds and Clifford], or [Richardson and Clifford]. We’ve always connected, it’s always worked out.”
“I just think we feed off each other real well,” said Simmonds. “It’s easy to read off of each other. I always know where they’re going to be, and we talk a lot, so it’s like having an extra guy out there with us.”
The biggest surprise has been Clifford, whose hands are known more for fisticuffs than for scoring goals.
“They’ve played very well,” said head coach Terry Murray. “They like to play with each other, and the fact that a young player, a rookie, is putting some pucks into the back of the net, it really doesn’t surprise me. It has happened in the history of the game when you have a player who plays that hard game, and goes to the areas that you have to go to in order to play at this time of the year.”
“[Clifford has] no reluctance, no hesitation, he made physical contact, and paid the price to recover pucks,” added Murray. “You get rewarded for that attitude. He just grows every month. He’s going to become a good player in this league, a very good player.”
Clifford chalks it all up to being able to deal with the pressure, despite his rookie status.
“It’s the attitude coming into the post-season,” he noted. “It’s going to be a grind, and whether you can deal with that pressure or not is going to be a difference maker.”
“We’re all fearless,” he added. “We have a lot of heart, and I think that’s our biggest asset, our heart and our character. All three of us are real high-end character guys. We take a serious approach to this game, and we have a lot of love for this game. We’ve just been working well together, and we’re going to continue that.”
Playing The Right Way
The Kings got far, far away from their system and structure in Games 3 and 4 at Staples Center, resulting in embarrassing losses in which they allowed six goals in each game.
“Our intensity in our defensive zone [is key],” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “[Goaltender Jonathan] Quick lets in six goals? Look at a lot of those goals—he didn’t have much of a chance on them. That’s pretty uncharacteristic for this team.”
“He makes big saves for us, but it’s not too often that we’re giving up tap-in goals, back door goals,” added Brown. “That’s just a matter of guys focusing. We’ve got to find a way to get the focus we had on the road back here [at home]. It’s the responsibility of each individual to bring their own game.”
In Game 5 at San Jose on April 23, they had that focus, earning a 3-1 win, despite allowing 52 shots on goal.
“I don’t need to look at the 52 shots for very long,” said Murray. “It’s not a number I’m concerned about. We always break those numbers down to smaller areas, and it’s the Grade A-quality chances that are the ones that I focus in on, and that number was not too bad.”
“Quick was called on to play very well,” added Murray. “The plays that were inside of ‘home plate’ were probably around twelve to 15. That number is a little bit high compared to our average over the course of the year, but when you’re looking at a powerhouse of a team like that, and the number of power plays that they had, the number was not too bad.”
“Last night, we were better defensively, we gave our goaltender the opportunity to make the big stops when he had to, and those were plays that were coming from right in front of him, rather than plays that were coming from the back door.”
Quick noted his teammate’s stronger defensive effort.
“I felt like, a lot of times, we were holding them up around the paint, so it allowed me to freeze the puck, when necessary,” he said. “Especially later in the those back-to-back penalty kills, I think it really paid off there.”
“We did a good job of keeping the majority of the shots from the perimeter, boxing out, and tying up sticks in front,” he added. “But it’s one win. We need to win again tomorrow night to stay alive. That’s all we’re focused on now.”
“We [have to] have the same attitude we did up there [during Game 5 in San Jose],” said Brown. “Our backs are against the wall. The only way we’re going to win is finding ways to take care of our own end. That’s the key for us, as a team, given the team they have.”
Murray explained that Kings did a better job of keeping a forward high in the offensive zone to be in good defensive position.
“We had a better F3 forward, and, to me, that’s the lynch pin for our hockey club,” he noted. “You play in the proper position, and now you’re working with your defensemen as you work back to your own defensive zone.”
“You’ve got to have three below [your own] goal line to break pucks out and protect,” he added. “We had a pretty good look with three most of the night.”
“It was just a matter of playing the game the right way. That’s all it was. The conversations we’ve had in team meetings recently have been a push on that side of the game, to do things right whenever you do get an opportunity to protect a one-goal lead, as opposed to what we showed in that second period when we were getting a little bit out of sorts and out of character.”
But there is still need for improvement.
“We’re looking to be a little better in those two-on-two board battles,” Murray explained. “Sometimes, they were rolling off the boards, taking pucks to the net, and now, we’re chasing from behind.”
“The important part for us is staying on the right side of people,” Murray elaborated. “We’re getting caught cheating, flat-footed. Maybe it’s just the physical matchup, where you get a big man like [Sharks star center Joe] Thornton, who’s able to overpower somebody and take it to the net. That’s where we have to make sure we’re adjusting, reading, and playing the right side of it.”
Part of playing the right way is not allowing themselves to get lured into doing what the Sharks want.
“Their game, offensively, is as good as any team in the league,” said Murray. “They come with three, they’ve got their defensemen jumping in from the blue line. They’ve got four or five guys coming in off cycles. They are looking specifically to break you down, and draw people away from the net, to get two of your defenseman into the corner, to get a forward in front of the net so they can take advantage of that.”
“They’re a veteran team,” added Murray. “That’s why they’ve won this division four or five years in a row. They’re intelligent in the offensive part of the game, very intelligent, and very gifted with high-end, world class players.”
While they cannot afford to be lured into playing the game the Sharks’ way, the Kings also can’t avoid it. But they can read and react appropriately while adhering to their system and structure.
“You can’t avoid it, you don’t want to avoid it,” Murray explained. “You want to get in there, you’ve got to compete, you’ve got to get into those battles. It’s the matter now of a foot [in terms of positioning].”
“That’s the adjustment, and that’s the learning experience that you’re going through as a young groups of guys,” Murray elaborated. “That’s the difference in the game. It’s not that complicated, but it is a very hard thing to learn, and to show the composure and the patience to, sometimes, sacrifice the ‘I want to go score’ [attitude] for the ‘I want to defend’ attitude.”
“We’ve got to keep it simple,” said Simmonds. “We can’t let anything distract us. We’ve got to focus on our game plan. On the road, we play simple. We try to keep the puck to the outside of the rink. That’s our game, getting down low and grinding it out. We’ve got to bring that home. We don’t like run and gun, so we’ve got to stick to that.”
Big Plays Often Don’t Show Up On The Scoresheet
Early in the third period of Game 5, the Sharks were on the power play until the 15:03 mark, when Brown goaded San Jose winger Ryane Clowe into taking a high sticking penalty.
That veteran play ended the Sharks’ power play and slowed their momentum considerably.
“It’s a playoff series, and you get to know guys pretty well,” Brown explained. “He’s taken a few penalties. We’ve noticed that he’s taken the most minors on his team, and a lot of them were retaliatory.”
“I’m not sure exactly what happened, it was a scrum in front of the net, and he got his stick up,” Brown elaborated. “That definitely took [a bit of the wind] out of their sails. It’s tough, when you’re down by two, to play a man down, or four-on-four. That ended up working out for us. We didn’t get much on that power play, which was disappointing, but we chewed some time up.”
Murray stressed the importance of those kinds of plays that do not show up on the scoresheet, but have a tremendous impact on the outcome.
“That’s a big play, and those critical moments in a game pop up,” he said. “To identify it, and do the right thing at the time is what it’s all about to win in the playoffs.”
“[Veteran left wing] Ryan Smyth comes back as hard as I’ve seen him come back on the backcheck,” he added. “He made a diving play to knock the puck off a stick. Those are not stat sheet numbers. There’s no way of really evaluating it. That’s just digging in to win. Those are two examples of veteran players doing the right thing.”
Less Is More For Penner
Murray demoted left wing Dustin Penner to the Kings’ fourth line to start Game 5, where he remained throughout. Penner quickly responded, scoring his first goal in what seems like an eternity at 8:42 of the first period on a wicked wrist shot from the top of the slot.
Not having to deal with the greater responsibility of having to shut down the Sharks’ top line apparently eased Penner’s burden.
“His game was good,” said Murray. “He worked, he was focused, he used his size. The matchup right now is important. I’m giving him an opportunity to back away from having to shut down the Thornton line in the checking part of the game.”
“He’s capable, but the game is just not there right now,” added Murray. “With the different look, it’s an opportunity to get your game together, and have some success.”
Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period contributed to this story.
Raw audio interviews
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Jonathan Quick (2:39)
Kyle Clifford (1:04)
Dustin Brown (2:15)
Terry Murray (13:51)
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.