Having lost two of the three games against Chicago in the regular season might be a red flag for many. But the Kings won the last contest between the two teams on March 25, 5-4, at a time when the Kings were different team than the one the Blackhawks faced earlier in the season.
Indeed, the Kings picked up their game during the stretch run, and the addition at the trade deadline of defenseman Robyn Regher, who was signed to a two-year contract extension on May 30, valued at $3 million per season, was a key factor.
“I think [Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi] does a good job of getting guys who complement each other,” said defenseman Matt Greene. “We’ve got a stay-at-home guy, and an offensive guy on each pair. But it also shows what kind of player Robyn is, to be able to come into a new team and mesh that easily. It’s very impressive, on his part.”
For Regher’s part, he was told, very specifically, what was needed from him.
“They told me that they wanted me to be a good defensive defenseman, a physical guy, help on the penalty-kill, doing things like that,” said Regher. “I had a really good understanding of the things that I needed to really work on, and [head coach] Darryl [Sutter] had mentioned that they felt that they were missing a veteran presence during the season, unfortunately because of injury, with both Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell missing most of the year. To try to come in and help out in that way, that’s what they felt they needed.”
The 33-year-old native of Recife, Brazil managed to fit right in, and he gave the Kings some of that physical shot in the arm they needed on their blue line.
“[Regehr has] been great for us, especially [while] Greene still out,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We needed that defensive presence, a physical guy.”
“For the most part, our defensive core wasn’t the most physical,” added Doughty. “We didn’t have that physical presence. Bringing him in, he’s helped out a lot. He’s a big part of where we are right now.”
Even with Regehr, who will be taking a pay cut from the $4.02 million he will earn this season, that physical element needed on the Kings blue line was still missing a key component. But when it came back during the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Jose Sharks, the Kings had finally restored what they had lost from their defensive corps last season.
“We’ve added Robyn Regehr, which is a huge help for our hockey team, and then, getting Matt Greene back in the playoffs [is huge],” said center Mike Richards. “Just with those two in the lineup, it adds that physical presence, which I don’t think we had before. It definitely makes us a much harder team to play against.”
Greene’s strong, physical play was a significant factor in the second round against San Jose.
“It’s good to hear that, but you just want to play well,” he said. “You want to help your team win.”
Greene also adds the vocal leadership in the dressing room that the Kings were lacking throughout most of this season.
“Matt’s great,” said Doughty. “Not only is he great on the ice every night, but he works the hardest, and he plays hard every night. In the room, he’s a great guy to have. He’s vocal, he gets guys pumped up for the game, and he tells guys where they need to be if they do something wrong. He’s great at doing that. It’s huge to have him back.”
Despite the contributions of Regehr and Greene, Doughty is the Kings’ best defenseman, and he usually leads ice time in games. In fact, during the 2013 post-season, he is averaging 27:57 per game, second only to Boston’s Zdeno Chara (31:37) among players who are still active in the playoffs.
Doughty said that he even though his ice time is up from last year’s playoffs (26:08 per game), he could play even more.
“That’s what we used the lockout for,” said Doughty. “We trained hard, we got in shape, and [during] the season, we’re playing every other day. We’ve just gotten used to it. I can play 28 minutes [per game], for sure. I love playing that much. I feel that the more I play, the better I play, but whatever they do, even if they bring my minutes down, I’ll still play the same way.”
“I feel great,” added Doughty. “At the start of the season, with such a long time of not actually playing in games, it was tough to get ready. You had to get the conditioning going. That was all you could really do. Throughout the season, I put on a little more weight. It feels better down low. I can make hits, and be physical with guys in the corners. That’s where I feel comfortable.”
Sutter talked about Doughty being the go-to guy on his blue line.
“He’s a big game player,” Sutter told the media in Chicago on May 31. “If you look at how many games we played last year, twenty playoff games, he’s a big game player. He got better as we went along. You have to remember, he’s been part of championships before, been a significant part of it, even as a younger guy. He did that again last year.”
“At the end, as a staff, at the end of the playoffs, you evaluate the experience,” Sutter added. “It’s not the regular season experience. There’s not many guys his age that have accomplished what he has accomplished. That in itself is the experience of doing it.”
Kings Have The Advantage In Goal
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford is a fine goaltender, certainly no slouch, and he has played well during the playoffs, earning a 1.70 goals-against average (GAA), a .938 save percentage, and one shutout. Nevertheless, he is no Jonathan Quick, who has been absolutely brilliant, with a 1.50 GAA, a .948 save percentage, and three shutouts.
Indeed, no one was anywhere near as good as Quick was in the playoffs last season, and one could argue for that being the case again to this point in the 2013 post-season.
“He won the Conn Smythe last year, and I was saying to a couple of guys [on Tuesday] that he’s making better saves than [during] the playoff run last year,” Doughty noted. “He’s been standing on his head for us. It’s great to have him do that, but I think we’ve got to back him up a little more He’s been having to make many big saves.”
“He’s had a special couple years in the playoffs,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville told the media in Chicago on May 31. “He’s a different kind of goalie, the way he moves so quick in the crease or even above it.”
Traffic in front of Quick will be crucial for the Blackhawks’ success.
“[Quick] goes after everything, never gives up, he covers the bottom of the net so well,” Crawford told the media in Chicago on May 31. “Just got to find a way to get in front of him, take his eyes away, make it hard on him. Just try and create a lot of traffic.”
“Traffic is something we talked about,” said Quenneville. “Pucks at the net, second opportunities are the ones you’re going to beat them with. We’ll see. You work as you go along with him. I know a lot of our talk going into tomorrow’s game is that we have to find a way to make sure that he doesn’t see pucks and make it hard on him in that area.”
“No matter who we’re facing, we always pre-scout, go over the goalie a little more thoroughly in the playoffs,” added Quenneville. “You watch them play. There’s certain situations where you got to do special things to beat him because he’s so effective in certain areas. We’ll talk about those. It’s easier said than done.”
The Blackhawks have some very skilled forwards, but even they have Quick in their heads.
“I think with him, he takes away the bottom of the net very well,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane told the media in Chicago on May 31. “He’s very fast, moving side to side. I think we all know that he likes to challenge just from watching him. You want to get traffic, make sure he’s not seeing the puck, and when you get the second opportunities, elevate the puck in the upper half of the net to eliminate him taking away the bottom of the net.”
“He’s a great goaltender,” added Kane. “Been playing very well in the playoffs a couple years now. Seems to be getting better and better. We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
Blackhawks center and captain Jonathan Toews shared a similar view.
“Whether it’s on the rush, five-on-five in the zone, you can have guys crashing far side,” Toews told the media in Chicago on May 31. “We got to get traffic, not pass up on opportunities to shoot the puck, if we get a second or third chance, to put it in there.”
“Hopefully, [we can] keep pucks alive and not let them gobble it up or freeze the puck in his glove,” added Toews. “There’s no perfect way to score on him. We’ve just got to find a way.”
Because of Quick’s dominance through the first two rounds of the playoffs, most of the media attention regarding goaltending focused on him. But Sutter was quick to point out that the Kings have their work cut out for them against Crawford.
“He’s had a hell of a year,” Sutter noted. “Didn’t he win the [William] Jennings [Trophy]? You better give Corey Crawford lots of credit.”
Crawford, and backup goaltender Ray Emery, won the William M. Jennings Trophy this season. The trophy is awarded to the goalkeeper(s), having played a minimum of 25 games, for the team with the fewest goals scored against it during the regular season.
“We have to beat Corey Crawford to win a game,” said Sutter. “You can’t win 0-0. You can win, 0-0, in the regular season, but you can’t get wins in playoffs.”
Offensive Production Must Improve
While the Kings defense has been solid, especially after the addition of Regher, and the return of Greene, offense has been an issue, with the Kings scoring just 2.00 goals per game in 13 playoff games this season, something they must improve upon if they expect to advance to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
“First and foremost, we’ve got to get more shots,” said center Anze Kopitar, who has just two goals and five assists for seven points in the playoffs. “We have to get it there, and crash the net more—get an ugly one, and see what happens after that.”
Even more important, with a 1-5 road record during the post-season, the Kings must find a way to score more than just one goal per game on the road.
“We need to score on the road,” forward Dustin Brown emphasized. “We’ve done a really good job of taking care of home ice, and that needs to continue. But we need to find a way to get [Quick] some goal support on the road.”
“We’ve lost five games on the road, and [all of them] have been 2-1 [scores],” Brown added. “We need to score goals on the road—find a way to get the job done on the offensive part of the game without sacrificing our defense.”
In other words, even with problems with scoring goals, do not expect the Kings to change their approach.
“Good defense, good goaltending,” Greene said about what the Kings need to advance past the Blackhawks. “We’ve got to limit their chances. They’re a skilled team that’s pretty solid throughout their four lines. We just have to slow down their offense, and pick up the goal scoring on our end.”
One notable problem on the offensive end has been production from the left side, whether it is Dustin Penner or Dwight King playing on the line with Richards and Jeff Carter.
But Richards is not too concerned about that heading into Game 1 against the Blackhawks.
“The guys who have been put in the situation have done a good job,” he said. “It’s a situation where, if you’re playing on the left side, as a left-handed center, it’s harder to get production, because the center is always facing the right side, and it’s an easier pass [to the right wing], because you’re making it on your forehand instead of your backhand, so the right winger is going to get more touches than the left side.”
“I think the guys who have played with us—it’s hard to step into a line that has played together for a long time,” he added. “I enjoy playing with Penner, I liked playing with King for a bit, and we’ve played with a lot of different guys throughout the year. I think they’ve done a good job, and as time goes on, we’re going to get more confidence. We definitely have some chemistry with Dustin over there.”
“We’ve played together for a bit now, and he’s probably the guy I’ve played the most with on the left side. That chemistry is good, between him and I, and Jeff, as well. We’ve had some success together, we know each other’s games, and at this time of year, it’s easier when you read a player a lot easier than having different guys in the mix.”
Sutter mixed up the lines towards the end of the second round against the Sharks, and Penner has jumped from one line to the next. But that has not had the impact that it might on many teams, especially at an individual level.
“As you get older, depending on what type of player you are, you have to adjust different areas of your game,” said Penner “I would say that I’d like to be playing more minutes, and you can ask anyone, except maybe Doughty, and they would tell you that they want to play more. But I’m way more happy winning than getting more minutes.”
“Whatever [role] I’m playing on the team that night, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and try to have a positive impact on the game,” added Penner. “The best thing about our team—you saw Brown on the ‘third line,’ for a game or two. We fill the spot which we’re put in. You put your own selfish pride away, because it’s about a team goal, and that’s why we’ve won six series in the last 18 months. We worry about the end result more than anything else. That’s winning.”
“At the end of the day, it’s about giving ourselves, as a team, the best chance of winning,” said Brown. “It’s not about where individuals play, [or] who you’re playing with, it’s about giving the team the best opportunity to win.”
“I went down on the third line with King and [forward Trevor Lewis]—there’s big holes with [center Jarret Stoll] being out,” added Brown. “I thought we were effective against the San Jose third line. We put a lot of pressure on them, found a way to, I think, be pretty effective in the two games I played down there. It’s just a matter of finding that balance, getting guys going on different aspects of their game.”
Kings Must Improve In The Face-Off Circle
Through the first two round of the playoffs, the Kings have been mostly dominated in the face-off circle, and they rank 14th out of the 16 playoff teams, with a 45.7 percent rating.
Of course, the Blackhawks are not much better, with a 47.6 percent rating, ranked 13th.
But Toews has a 56.0 percent rating in the face-off circle, and he will likely be up against Kopitar or Richards, who are rated at 50.6 percent and 49.4 percent, respectively, on face-offs in the playoffs.
“Face-offs [are] a big part that we’ve struggled through in the [playoffs],” said Richards. “I think we were under 50 percent for most it, and I’m not sure what we were [in Game 7 against San Jose].”
During that game, the Sharks had a 55 percent to 45 percent advantage at the face-off dot, and led after the first period, 77 percent to 23 percent.
“When you have the puck, you’re controlling the game more, instead of chasing [the play],” Richards noted. “It’s a lot easier to play when you have the puck, and making plays, rather than defending and chasing it down.”
Even worse, the Kings could still be without Stoll, one of the best face-off men in the league.
Stoll, who suffered a concussion as a result of a blow to the head by Sharks forward Raffi Torres on May 14, skated with the Kings during practice on May 31. Despite that, his status is unknown. As of this writing, there was no word from the Kings on if he has been cleared for contact, and he has not taken contact in practice since he resumed skating last week.
“We’ve missed him a lot, and we hope to get him back, at some point,” said Richards. “It’ll be a big boost for us whenever we can play with a full roster. At time of year, with the depth that we have, I think it’s going to benefit us.”
“He’s been our best face-off guy all year,” Kopitar told the media in Chicago on May 31. “That’s another strength, I guess, on the penalty-kill, even on the power play, if he does play. It gives us a right-handed face-off man that we didn’t have when he went out.”
“We did have Trevor for a little bit,” added Kopitar. “He’s been great. But getting Jarret back, you know, again, if he does come back, he’s a valuable penalty-killer, too.”
Physical Play Will Be A Key
Although the Blackhawks have an edge on their forward lines, in terms of talent, skill and speed, the Kings have a combination of talent, speed and physical play that, if they play their cards right, should work in their favor.
“I think it’s really been a staple of our game for the last few years,” Brown told the media in Chicago on May 31. “We have big, strong forwards that like to get on the forecheck. I think that’s a big key to our success. The challenge that Chicago poses—they’ve got some big guys on their team. They also rely on their speed and quickness.”
“For us to be successful, in our physical aspect, we need to put pucks in good spots,” Brown added. “They’ve got a lot of good, puck-moving defensemen who can maneuver really well back there. It’s a matter of ultimately putting pucks in the right spot.”
“They’re a top team that won the Cup in 2010. That’s the challenge for us going in there. They’ve got four lines that can play, and that we’ve got to match up with. All four lines are very skilled and dangerous. They’ve got a great goalie in Crawford, some great defensemen. They’re a great team from front to back.”
Brown observed that the Kings can also roll four lines.
“We’ve got four lines that can play, too,” he said. “Both [teams] have good goalies, and top defensemen in the league on both sides. As an individual, you have to look across and outplay the guy next to you.”
Brown indicated that the Blackhawks’ skill up front will not be easy to contain just with physical play.
“We talked about the Sharks and their offensive power, but Chicago is right there,” Brown noted. “They’re probably a different type of poison. When you look at [San Jose’s Joe] Thornton and [Brett] Burns, from a physical standpoint, they were real hard to contain, just because they’re big, huge bodies. If you go to Kane, [he’s got] world class skill.”
“They’re really skilled, but they compete really hard,” Brown added. “That’s the thing I find about a lot of the Chicago guys. Their compete level—for how good they are on the skill side of things, they compete really hard. That’s a challenge for our guys to match. We work hard, and we have skill guys who compete really hard, too. It’s a matter of matching up.”
“We probably have similar personnel, in the sense that some of our most skilled guys are high-compete guys, too. I think Toews, Sharp, and on the back end, [Duncan] Keith—they’re hard guys to play against. In here, I don’t think we’re easy to play against. That’s probably where the similarities are, in the compete level.”’
Sutter downplayed the size factor, and pointed to the Blackhawks’ speed as a concern.
“I think their size, if you look at it, the lineup they had last game, our lineup we had last game, is identical, he said. “So the size is the same, so I guess we have a problem with their speed.”
“[We have to] use our size,” he added. “Everybody’s fast, everybody’s big. I think both teams got to this point because they have some size and they have some speed.”
Kopitar stressed that the Kings must find a way to establish a forecheck, something they have not been able to do consistently through two playoff rounds.
“We’ve certainly faced, I guess a lot of bigger bodies in the past, but maybe not as small and as quick,” said Kopitar. “But the thing is, it’s not going to change a whole lot to what we have to do to make us successful. As Brownie was saying before, we still want to be a physical team. We still want to put pucks in good places where we can forecheck. At the end of the day, [we wat to] spend as much time in their zone and make them defend.”
Kopitar then emphasized that his team’s forecheck actually begins 200 feet away, in their own zone.
“You’ve got to put it in where we have a chance to get it back, first and foremost, not just chase them out of the zone because we all know they have some really mobile defensemen,” he said. “Next thing you know, you’re defending in your own zone.”
“You want to make it hard on them,” he added. “We want to be physical against them. But that all starts with our play coming up the ice, making sure that we don’t have any turnovers first and foremost. When we do get in their zone, keep it there as much as we can.”
Brown also said that his team must make life difficult for Chicago’s best.
“They have four or five top guys that you have to be hard on,” Brown stressed. “That’s what it’s about at this time of year—being hard on top guys. You see it in each series. We have guys who we’re going to go after. It’s not going to be an individual thing. It’s going to be a collective thing.”
“Our team, from top to bottom, is pretty good on being hard on [the opposition’s] top players,” Brown added. “The tricky thing with that is finding a way to do it without taking penalties, and getting yourself off your own game. That’s been one of the things we’ve been good at over the last couple of years, being hard on the top guys.”
Something that does not necessarily bode well for the Blackhawks is that they are already making changes—reactions to the brilliant play of Quick, and the Kings’ physical style.
In fact, reports out of Chicago are stating that 6-4, 233-pound forward Bryan Bickell will move from a checking role up to the ‘Hawks top line, with Toews and Marian Hossa.
“He’s a big body,” said Toews. “He’s shown some poise with the puck as the playoffs go along. It’s no coincidence that he’s been putting up the points he has been. He’s the type of guy that has been bringing it every part of the game. With the shot he has, the ability he has to score goals.”
“We’ll try to get him the puck as much as we can,” added Toews. “He’s going to do his thing, be physical, throw his body around. It will be fun.”
Despite the obvious tactical change, the Blackhawks say that they are not going to worry about what the Kings are trying to do.
“We’re going to play our game,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook told the media in Chicago on May 31. “We have to worry about ourselves. The L.A. Kings are a great team. They’re worried about us, we’re worried about them. We have to come out and try to establish our game right off the bat and have a good first period tomorrow night. I think the first period is going to be huge tomorrow, and we have to try to set the tone early.”
“It’s almost like they’re a better St. Louis Blues,” said Kane. “They play physical, have players that can score. When they do play physical, it seems to work to their advantage. Against them, we’ll try to worry about what we have to do.”
“If we play our game, play the fast-paced game we’ve been playing the past few games, it should work well for us,” added Kane. “We’re excited about doing that, especially after last series, finishing off three strong games. Hopefully we can use that momentum to take it to Game 1 and Game 2.”
In opposite dressing room, the Kings had the same idea.
“We’ve got to play our game,” said Greene. “Nothing changes. We’ve got to play our style, our system. We can’t be worried too much about what they’re going to do. We’ve got to know their tendencies, but at the same time, we have to get our game going.”
“We have certain keys that we need to execute in order to win on the road, and we’ve just got to do those.” said Regehr. “We’ve got to do a better job that way. There’s things that we need to do, a game we need to play, and we need to play it hard, and if we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
“It’s just going out there and performing,” said Kopitar. “We know what we have to do for us to be successful, and to win a game on the road. We’re going in there pretty confident.”
Frozen Royalty’s Prediction
As stated, Chicago has an advantage up front, in terms of skill, talent and speed. Call the defensive corps for both teams a toss-up. The Kings have the advantage in goal, and their ability to play a physical game should prove to be a formidable weapon. Add in the intangible factor (see Intangibles Are Now A Source Of Strength For The Los Angeles Kings and what do you get?
Kings in seven.
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