LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — For those who may be wondering, the headline for this story does not mean what you might think. Rather, it has become a repeated, old refrain that has often been heard in the Los Angeles Kings’ dressing room in recent seasons.
Indeed, the Kings really do need to get dirty. More specifically, they are getting very few opportunities to score the “dirty goals” to this point in the abbreviated 2013 season. The result? A meager 2-2-2 start to the season.
A dearth of scoring chances from the prime scoring areas was most evident this season in the Kings’ last game on January 31, when they dropped a 2-1 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators at Staples Center.
“We had a lot of offensive zone time, but it was a lot of cycles,” said forward Jeff Carter. “We really didn’t get much off it.”
“It was…getting into the scoring areas more,” said center Jarret Stoll. “We got a lot of shots blocked, and we had a lot of shots from the outside. We were OK, in spurts, but we just didn’t generate enough, and get into those hard areas, getting enough traffic in front of [Nashville goaltender] Pekka [Rinne].”
“We were in their zone, but we were pretty much on the outside, for the most part,” said center Anze Kopitar. “We’ve got to get back to the support that’s needed in the offensive zone. Then, we need to create mini two-on-ones where you beat the guys getting into the slot and [going] inside the [face-off dots] to create better angles to score.”
The Kings have the skill and physical ability to score their share of goals, as they did starting in mid-February last season, continuing throughout the playoffs, and on the road to winning the Stanley Cup.
“We have a team that can fill the net with pucks,” Carter stressed. “It’s just a matter of getting pucks through to the net. Teams do such a good job of blocking shots, and getting sticks on pucks now. Getting traffic [in front] is a huge part of [generating offense].”
The early season failure to get pucks and bodies to the front of their opponent’s net has the Kings struggling mightily to score goals, even though, as Carter pointed out, that should not be such a huge problem. In fact, the Kings are ranked just 28th in the thirty-team National Hockey League in goal scoring, averaging a paltry 1.83 goals per game.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have the early lead, scoring a whopping 5.29 goals per game (through games played on February 1), with the San Jose Sharks ranked second with 3.86 goals per game, more than two goals per game more than the Kings.
The Predators, ranked 30th in goal scoring (1.57 goals per game), should get some credit for clamping down on the Kings.
“That’s the way they play,” said left wing Simon Gagne. “You have to give them credit. They play a system that’s really tight. They only gave us a lot of space around them, so you fall into their trap.”
“You’re going to face some teams who try to play a ‘road game,’ [trying] not to give up too much,” added Gagne. “It was that type of game [on Thursday]. You can feel it during the game. Even in the first [and second periods], there wasn’t much going on. We were in their zone all the time, but something wasn’t there. You got the feeling they were going to play [the way they did, bottling up the front of their net], and it was going to be like that for sixty minutes.”
The trend throughout the league is that shot blocking has been pushed to the forefront in most defensive schemes, and the Predators are one of the better teams in the NHL in that category.
“Players are taught more now to get into shooting lanes than they were in the past,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “I think there’s a lot more lanes from the goaltender to the shooter that are blocked at any time. Now you have specialists.”
What can a team do against defenses that collapse down to the front of their net?
“You have to try to make plays, get pucks to the net, and try to get through to the net,” said Stoll. “You can’t play on the outside, you can’t just make ‘hope plays’ here or there, or long plays. You’ve got to support each other [and make] little, quick plays and passes with your teammates to beat the pressure, and try to create scoring chances.”
“You have to drive in more, try to create a little more space for yourself,” Gagne explained. “If you get in [close to the net], they might take a penalty—we all know that holding is being called a lot. You have to try to force yourself in, and try to create. It’s tough to play against [that], but that’s not the last time we’re going to face that. We’re going to have to be better then next time we face a team like that.”
Moving the puck to change shooting angles is essential to counter shot blockers.
“You try to keep changing [shooting] angles, and let the puck do more of the work,” Sutter emphasized. “Nashville has three guys who block a lot of shots. It’s not like [they did] something special against us, or that they went out of their way to do it. [Defensemen Hal] Gill, [Shea] Weber and [Scott] Hannan are all really top guys in the league at that, so it’s no different from when we played New Jersey in the [Stanley Cup Final] last year. They block a lot of shots. You just have to work around it.”
The Kings can expect to see a lot of teams playing very tight defensively as they skate against one Western Conference rival after another this season.
“It’s tough every night, the way teams play out here in the West,” Carter noted. “The East is so wide open now—I’ve been watching the games. It’s just a matter of bearing down, and battling to get there. If you look at Nashville, they’ve got those big guys on defense. If you just get there a little bit, there [could be] a double screen [if you can get a shot through] because their guy is right there, too.”
“At times, I thought we’ve been pretty good at it,” Carter added. “Obviously, there’s still a ways to go, but it’s just a matter of bearing down, getting into the battle, and creating space.”
“You don’t get many opportunities,” Sutter noted. “That’s the way teams are. Every team is playing a playoff brand of hockey already.”
As stated earlier, it all comes down to getting dirty.
“We’ve just got to get dirtier goals,” said winger and team captain Dustin Brown. “Gagne had a chance in the third period with nine or ten guys in front of the net. That’s what we need to do more of.”
“If we limit our chances against, like we did [against Nashville], that’s a good thing for us,” added Brown. “We just have to build on that, and try to find the dirty areas on the offensive side of the game.”
The Return Of Dustin Penner
After practice on January 31, Sutter confirmed that veteran left wing Dustin Penner, who has been a healthy scratch in the Kings’ last four games, will return to the lineup at Anaheim on Saturday.
“He’s ready to go,” said Sutter. “He has elements that he can bring that we need in our lineup.”
Based on how the Kings skated at practice, left wing Dwight King is expected to sit out against Anaheim, in favor of Penner. But prior to Sutter’s post-practice press conference, Penner was not entirely sure about his return.
“All indications point to yes, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” said Penner. “But I’m not a betting man.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Anze Kopitar (2:24)
Simon Gagne (2:51)
Jeff Carter (4:25)
Darryl Sutter (4:20)
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Talking about it and getting it done are two different things. Let’s hope they get it done tonight.