EL SEGUNDO, CA — Heading into tonight’s Game 4 of their first round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues (7:00 PM PDT, Staples Center; televised regionally on CNBC in the United States, CBC and RDS in Canada, and on Fox Sports West in Southern California), the Los Angeles Kings find themselves back in the series, having won Game 3 on May 4, 1-0, at Staples Center, cutting the Blues’ lead in the series by half.
That said, the Kings know that they are still not playing as well as they can, or as they need to, if they expect to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
What stares you in the face most is the fact that the Kings have scored just one goal in each game of this series.
A big factor in the Kings’ offensive woes is that Blues goaltender Brian Elliott is not the sieve he was in the second round of the playoffs last season against the Kings. Indeed, he has been outstanding, earning a 0.93 goals-against average (GAA) in the three games, along with a .962 save percentage, both stellar numbers.
“He’s a good goalie,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. “He makes the first save pretty much every time. Goalies are huge in any series, and Elliott played great in the first two games. That’s why they won two, and [Kings goaltender Jonathan] Quick was great [in Game 3]. That’s why we won.”
In comparison, Quick has a 1.25 GAA, and a .959 save percentage, also stellar numbers.
“[Elliott is] playing extremely solid,” said Kings right wing Justin Williams. “There’s not many holes right now, but we need to find’em. They’re there on every goalie. We need to make our second and third opportunities count.”
Doughty identified a perceived weakness in Elliott’s game.
“One area where he struggles is that he [gives up] some rebounds,” Doughty noted. “I think we haven’t been doing a good enough job of pouncing on those rebounds, and putting in the second effort.”
As Doughty and Williams indicated, getting pucks and bodies to the Blues net, and generating second and third opportunities, has not been a strong point for the Kings in this series.
“We need to penetrate within their box, we need to beat guys to the net,” Williams emphasized. “We need to throw more pucks to the net.”
“Sometimes I feel that, when you’re playing hockey, sometimes the puck that you shoot, you don’t think it’s going in, and it ends up going in,” Williams added. “It’s just getting it there. We need to do a lot more of that.”
Center Jarret Stoll went a bit deeper.
“We just need to penetrate more,” he stressed. “You can’t be on the outside. You’re not going to score many goals from the outside in this league, especially in the playoffs.”
“Just penetrate, get to the middle, get to the inside, and get more shots,” added Stoll. “If you’re cycling, you’ve got possession, you’ve got zone time. That’s one thing, but getting to the net, getting shots to the net, making them turn, and find loose pucks, that’s a tough play. You don’t know where [the offensive players] are going, you don’t know where the rebound is. You’re on your heels.”
As much as they want to go harder to the front of the net and get more pucks there, the defense in this series has been nearly smothering, especially by the Blues. In any case, by and large, this series has been dominated by tight checking in all three games.
“It’s a tough series, a hard-fought, low scoring, tight series,” said defenseman Robyn Regehr. “It’s typical playoff hockey. Every inch of ice is a battle out there.”
“Both teams are struggling a little bit, offensively,” added Regehr. “That said, there’s a reason for it. Goaltenders are playing well, making big saves.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter shared a simpler view.
“Everybody’s trying to score a goal, but it’s not that easy when you have two [of the] best defensive teams in the conference,” he said.
Face-Offs Are Another Issue
Although the Kings have gotten a little better at it as the series has gone along, face-offs have also been a big problem.
In Game 1, the Kings were blown out of the face-off circle by the Blues, who won the face-off battle by a whopping 64 percent to 36 percent margin.
In electoral politics, that’s a landslide.
In that game, center Anze Kopitar won just 36.4 percent of his face-offs, and Stoll, the Kings’ top face-off man, ended the game with a 35.7 percent success rate.
Meanwhile, centers Andy McDonald and David Backes dominated in the face-off circle. McDonald won eight out of nine face-offs in the game (88.9 percent), while Backes won 14 out of 20 draws (70.0 percent).
The Kings cut the Blues’ advantage in the face=off circle to 55 percent to 45 percent in Game 2, but Kopitar struggled mightily once again, earning exactly the same numbers as in Game 1, 36.4 percent, while Stoll was slightly better with a 44 percent rating.
The lone bright spot in the face-off circle for the Kings in Game 2 was Jeff Carter, who won six out of seven face-offs (85.7 percent).
Once again, Backes dominated the face-off dot, winning 14 out of 23 face-offs (60.9 percent). McDonald had a 57.1 percent rating, and Vladimir Sobotka earned a 55.6 percent rating.
The margin was even closer in Game 3, but the Blues held onto their advantage, with Sobotka leading the way, winning seven out of eight draws (87.5 percent).
Center Mike Richards led the Kings with a 66.7 percent rating, and Colin Fraser had a 57.1 percent rating, but Kopitar and Stoll continued to struggle, especially Stoll, who won just six out of 17 face-offs (35.5 percent).
These face-off numbers come as quite the surprise, given that the Kings ranked fourth in the league in regular season face-off percentage, with a 52.0 percent rating, Contributing to that was Kopitar winning 53.3 percent of his draws, and Stoll earning a 56.0 percent rating.
But through three playoff games, both are way off those numbers. Kopitar is at 37.7 percent, while Stoll is just slightly better at 38.3 percent. As a result, the Kings are ranked last among playoffs teams with a measly 42.9 percent rating.
While the Kings have suffered a big drop-off at the face-off dot, the Blues have excelled, earning a league-leading 57.1 percent rating, thanks in large part to Backes, Sobotka and McDonald, who have earned ratings of 61.0 percent, 56.5 percent, and 71.4 percent, respectively.
In the case of Backes and McDonald, those numbers are well above their regular season marks.
Richards, who is the only Kings center with a face-off rating above 50 percent (54.0) stressed that his team must improve in the face-off circle.
“It starts with the face-off dot,” said Richards. “It’s definitely tougher winning face-offs on the road, with the different things you have to do, like putting your stick down first. But that’s where it starts, with puck possession, and when you have that puck possession, we’re a better hockey team.”
But Kings centers are not the only ones at fault.
“It’s not just the centers, but it’s your wingers and defensemen,” Richards stressed. “There’s help [for the center] that needs to be done there. It’s a big challenge for us.”
“There’s a lot of face-offs that aren’t won or lost,” said Sutter. “[The puck is] just in the feet, and it’s somebody coming in and getting the puck. It’s not the center, so that’s a big part of it.”
Offense Starts 200 Feet From The Opponent’s Net
Something many people forget is that offense does not start in the attacking zone. Rather, it starts at the other end of the rink, 200 feet away.
Indeed, unless a team can get control of the puck in its own zone, execute a quick breakout, and enter the attacking zone as a single unit, they can probably forget about scoring.
“We need to move the puck better out of our zone,” said Williams. “We know where their forecheck is coming from. We know their defensemen are, sometimes, aggressive, and other times, they’re passive. We just need to make plays. Our wingers need to make plays to our centers coming out of the zone, and our defensemen need to make plays to our wingers.”
“It’s not just one play,” added Williams. “It’s two or three plays that we need to clean up, get out of our zone, and into theirs.”
Regehr said that the Kings have made adjustments based on the Blues’ forecheck.
“We saw the forecheck, and what they were trying to do in the first two games in St. Louis,” he noted. “Now we’ve made some adjustments, and I think we’re doing a better job.”
“The key, first of all, is to get back and really be quick, as one unit,” he added. “When you’re all back, and you’re supporting each other in very small, little areas and tight spaces—that’s what you have to do against a very aggressive, fast forecheck, and a physical one, too.”
“You can’t hope to make the long plays, and stretch out a zone-and-a-half, or two zones, waiting for the perfect play. You can’t do that. You have to get back, you have to put the work in, help one another out. You have to talk, and away you go from there.”
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