LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings are in Chicago, hours away from a win-or-go home Game 5 matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks, who lead their best-of-seven Western Conference Final playoff series, 3-1.
The Blackhawks, even without their top defenseman, Duncan Keith (suspended), used their superior speed and surprisingly strong physical play to force the Kings into numerous turnovers and to keep Kings forwards on the perimeter throughout most of Game 4, a 3-2 Chicago victory that was not as close as the score might indicate.
Indeed, the disparity in quality scoring chances fell heavily in favor of the Blackhawks, who could have easily won this game by a two or three-goal margin, if not for the strong play of Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, even though the Blackhawks’ first goal by forward Bryan Bickell was a soft goal.
“We’ve been relying on Quick to make too many saves,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’re not playing the right way. We’re not playing the way this team is capable of.”
The biggest problem for the Kings in the three games that they have lost in this series has been turnovers, especially those between the tops of the circles on both ends.
“What we were really good at in Game 3 was [our play in] the neutral zone,” said winger and captain Dustin Brown. “Tonight, we had more turnovers, and the transition game for them is really good. They have really good, puck-moving defensemen. After a turnover, they can move it right back up the ice.”
That is exactly what happened on the game-winning goal scored by Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, who finished off a two-on-one break early in the third period after Kings forward Brad Richardson coughed up the puck at the Chicago blue line, just as the Kings were in the midst of a line change.
“It’s because of the turnovers,” Doughty lamented. “We can do that line change if we get the puck in deep, but we didn’t get the puck in deep. Guys [then got caught] changing at the wrong time, and that created the odd-man rush.”
But it was not just that the Kings were handing the puck to the Blackhawks. Rather, the Kings were often forced into those turnovers by heavy pressure.
“They’re a very aggressive team,” Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi explained. “They played right on top of us. There’s constant pressure. But you have to realize it’s there. If you have time to make a play [make it]. If not, you have to put it to a safe spot, or put it behind them.”
“When you turn the puck over at the blue lines, with the skill they have, it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to put one on the scoreboard,” Scuderi elaborated. “You can always live to fight another day, but if you turn one over, it’s usually going to be a scoring opportunity with the talent they have.”
“When we play the type of game that’s all [moving] north, all the time, we’re playing at our best. Right now, we’re not getting that one hundred percent of the time. Hopefully, we’ve learned our lesson, and that we’re going to win the next one.”
The Kings also failed to take advantage of a huge opportunity after the suspension of Keith, the Blackhawks’ top defenseman.
Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said that his players filled in the gap left by Keith’s absence brilliantly.
“I think our whole team game was where we were hoping to be last game,” said Quenneville. “I thought we got contributions across the board, especially the guys that logged a lot of minutes down there, did a real good job of having a good gap, getting some clears, and they were strong in front of the net.”
“The defense in front of [Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford] combined to do an outstanding job,” added Quenneville. “[The Kings are a] tough team to shut down in the third. [The Chicago defense] deserves a lot of credit.”
Indeed, the Blackhawks shut the Kings down in the third period, limiting them to just two shots on goal, and no quality scoring opportunities.
“I couldn’t tell you what caused that,” said Brown. “We have to get more pucks to the net, more bodies to the net. I don’t think that’s just the third, but the whole series. The Hawks have done a good job, limiting our rush chances. With the way their defensemen skate, we have to place the pucks better and get to the neutral zone better.”
“I think the neutral zone has pretty much been the key for the whole series,” added Brown. “Their transition game is really good. If we’re going to turn the puck over, or not get through the neutral zone cleanly, it’s going to play into their hands.”
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter had another view of the third period.
“I think once they scored the quick goal after the penalty-kill, ten seconds after, I think we had to go for it a little bit, and we were stretched out,” he said. “That doesn’t work that well against them. So I think they did a good job of plugging it off, defending the lead.”
As a result, the Kings are now in a deep hole going into Game 5, a game they must win to avoid elimination. But they can look at their opponent for inspiration, as the Blackhawks came back from a 3-1 deficit against Detroit in the second round.
“You look at the opponent that we’re playing, they were in the exact same situation, and they came out of it in the last round,” Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr told the media in Chicago on June 7. “It’s something that’s very doable. We’re preparing to win one game tomorrow, and that’s as far as we’re looking right now.”
“It’s a different situation when you just have one game to play,” Brown told the media in Chicago on June 7. “You can draw on being in the trench hole together. I think it’s key for us, the fact that we’ve been through it together, we’ve been down in the holes together. I think the most important thing is leaning on each other at a time like now.”
Brown pointed out that being down, 3-1, in a series was a new experience for this Kings team.
“We’ve been through a lot, as a group, but we’ve never been in a situation like this,” he noted. “It’s about leaning on each other, at this point. It’s not going to be one individual. It’s going to be us, as a group, if we’re going to be successful. That’s been the strength of this team for a few years now. Relying on each other and trusting each other when you get into a tough spot.”
Rather optimistically, Doughty said that the Kings might be able to use their dire situation as an advantage.
“Now that we’re down, 3-1, people aren’t expecting us to [win], so we can go in there as if we have no pressure on us,” he said. “We can go in there, play our game, play hard, steal one from them in front of their home fans.”
“We’re a team that doesn’t get too down on ourselves, or too high on ourselves,” said Scuderi. “We’re pretty even keel, so I’m hoping we’ll come out with our best sixty minutes at the United Center. We’ve got everything on the line, so there are no excuses for us.”
No, there are no excuses. That said, the Kings’ playoff lives are hanging on by a quickly unraveling thread, thanks to the play of the Blackhawks in Games 1, 2 and 4, that has left the Kings in their dust.
“It’s the playoffs and we’re deep,” said Quenneville. “It’s an exciting situation to be in. I think it’s a great opportunity. We were very frustrated, and disappointed with the way we competed or played last game. Talk about your leadership, talk about everybody—the contribution we got across the board is what we were looking for.”
It Has To Be Injuries For Kopitar, Brown
In 17 playoff games this season, Brown and center Anze Kopitar have not even closely resembled the players fans are used to seeing on a nightly basis. Indeed, Kopitar has scored just two goals and has added five assists for seven points, while Brown has scored three goals and has tallied one assist.
Perhaps more glaring is that Brown has 29 shots on goal and 19 missed shots for a combined total of 48 attempted shots, while Kopitar has 28 shots on goal and 18 missed shots—46 attempted shots.
Over 17 games, Brown is averaging just 2.82 attempted shots per game, while Kopitar is averaging a measly 2.71 attempts per game.
Even worse, neither player is getting many quality scoring chances against the Blackhawks.
“With how mobile their defensemen are, they don’t give you a lot of time and space, especially on the rush,” said Brown. “If you get by one, they almost cheat on the play, in the sense that the second guy is coming right away. We haven’t been able to find—where you can catch them is if they over play it, but we haven’t been able to find those open guys.”
But the issues with Brown and Kopitar extend back to the first round of the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues, as neither Brown or Kopitar have been very effective, except in spurts here and there.
Finally, Sutter knew that something had to be done, especially in Kopitar’s case, so he demoted him to the third line for Games 3 and 4, and he moved Jarret Stoll up to center his top line.
Sutter tried to downplay the move.
“It’s not that big a deal,” he said. “Quite honestly, we played our same lines every shift, every game, last year in the playoffs, just about all year this year, other than left wingers. We just moved [Kopitar] more into a quieter role, that’s all.”
Although Sutter did not elaborate, the implication cannot be more clear. Sutter obviously knows that Kopitar cannot give him the play he needs on the top lines, so he has moved Kopitar down to the third line, where he has a better chance of being able to create something when he’s not facing the Blackhawks’ top forwards and defensemen.
But if Game 4 was any indication, Kopitar is not getting better. Rather, he looks a bit slower in each game, and he simply does not appear to able to do what he is normally capable of doing in the offensive zone—it seems rather unlikely that Kopitar will be able to contribute much in the offensive zone, at this point.
If that is the case, their already slim chances are dramatically worse.
It will be very interesting, once the playoffs are over for the Kings, to hear about the suspected injuries that have sapped Kopitar and, in all likelihood, Brown, of their effectiveness.
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