LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — As reported in this space on October 24, the Los Angeles Kings’ game is built around establishing a strong, relentless, smothering forecheck.
The only problem is that through 14 games this season, their forecheck has not always been there.
“The biggest part of our game is the forecheck, and it hasn’t been there every night,” winger and captain Dustin Brown told Frozen Royalty on October 23. “It’s been really inconsistent. When we’re really good, and hard to play against, it’s because our forecheck is really good.”
One week after Brown made that remark, his team put in their best effort of the season, despite glaring blunders on two goals against, to beat the National Hockey League’s best team to date, the San Jose Sharks, 4-3, in overtime, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The biggest reason the Kings were victorious was that they established that hard, heavy forecheck early in the contest, and managed to keep it going until center Anze Kopitar scored the game-winner on the power play at 2:32 of overtime.
“It certainly seems so,” Kopitar said, when asked if their forechecking effort against the Sharks might have been their strongest of the season, to date.
“It seems like we had some good shifts in their zone,” Kopitar added. “We were able to cycle the puck a little bit, and get opportunities. That was probably the closest you can get to playoff hockey at this time of the year. I thought there was lots of intensity, lots of hitting. As usual, when we play these guys, whomever wins the special teams usually comes out on top. We did that, and got the two points.”
“It’s a battle,” said right wing Justin Williams, who scored on the power play at 12:21 of the third period to tie the game, 2-2. “There’s not a free inch of ice out there, it seems. You’ve got to work for everything, especially in the offensive zone, against them. They’re a tough team to play. I’m happy with the way we responded—with a big game.”
Indeed, the Kings were physical, with the exception of the two, previously mentioned blunders that produced gift-wrapped goals for the Sharks, they were otherwise pretty solid in their own zone, and perhaps most notable, their puck support was superb, and proved to be a key to their success.
“A team like that, where they have big bodies around, all over the ice, you’ve got to play a physical game,” Kopitar emphasized. “Holding onto pucks in the offensive zone is probably the biggest key—you try to wear’em down. With the firepower they have, it’s safest to play in their zone, and I thought we did a fairly good job [of that]. There’s room for improvement, but we’ll take it.”
“I’ve said it all along,” Kopitar added. “Part of our forecheck success is definitely managing the puck through the neutral zone, because when we’re strong with the puck, maybe it’s not forechecking so much, because we’re getting so many possession entries. But when we do have to chip it in, you have to chip it into a spot where the goalie can’t play it, and we get a chance to get it back. It’s not just put it in, to put it in, and go nuts. It’s positioning the puck where you have to put it, [in order] to get it back.”
“Going back, the neutral zone is a big thing for us, because when we support each other, even when we chip the puck in, we can get it back.”
But managing the puck does not usually start in the neutral zone. Rather, more often than not, it begins behind a team’s own net, with players maintaining narrow gaps between each other, allowing for short clearing passes on breakout plays. Such passes are difficult for backchecking forwards or opposing defensemen to break up, compared to long clearing passes.
With narrow gaps and short passes, the offensive team can generate speed through the neutral zone, which is critical to attacking as a group, and generating a forecheck—that’s puck support, an often overlooked aspect of the game.
“Spending less time in our zone, and being clean on breakouts is crucial to [generating a forecheck],” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “If you beat the forecheck once, and you’re out [of your own zone], you’re good to go. We just put pressure [on them, and we had] good gaps.”
“When we have a tight, five-man group, when we’re not spread out, we create a lot of turnovers, and we force teams to dump pucks in [instead of carrying the puck into the Kings’ zone],” added Muzzin. “If we’re clean breaking out, we hardly spend any time in our zone.”
That the Kings were able to do that against a team with the firepower that the Sharks have displayed so far this season is significant.
“We were playing the best team in the league,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “They’re a tough team to forecheck. They don’t put themselves in a position to turn pucks over, or to have any pucks where they have to bang it around the wall.”
“We knew San Jose is the number one team, and we knew we had a big challenge ahead,” Muzzin noted. “Coming off a loss [at Phoenix on October 29], we wanted to come back with a great effort, and for the full 65 minutes, we had a good effort. We knew, going into the third, we had to get one to force OT, and our record in overtime and shootouts is pretty healthy right now. We had a good attitude going in, we were excited, and we got it done.”
Carter’s New Boot Is Definitely Not Stylish
Before practice on November 1, players spotted forward Jeff Carter wearing a boot, but it was definitely not the kind of boot anyone wants to wear.
Indeed, Carter suffered what is believed to be a foot or ankle injury that now has him wearing a walking boot.
Carter will be out for one week from the date of his placement on injured reserve—an educated guess is that he will placed on injured reserve retroactive to October 31.
“I didn’t know [Carter was injured] until this morning,” said Kopitar. “I saw him walking in with a boot, and that was it.”
Carter is expected to be placed on injured reserve today. The Kings also placed defenseman Keaton Ellerby on waivers to make room for the expected recall of right wing Tyler Toffoli and center/right wing Linden Vey from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.
“It’s definitely tough to see when a player goes down, no matter who it is,” Kopitar noted. “With Jeff going down, it’s definitely a loss for us, but that’s the way it is. We’re going to have to find a way to score goals, put up points, and win hockey games, at the end of the day. With him or without him, we’re going to have to do that.”
“We’ve got the confidence that everybody in here is going to pick up whatever needs to be picked up,” Kopitar added. “I’m going to go out and do all the same stuff over and over again. That’s really all I can do, and all everyone else can do. It’s just normal, focusing on our game, and not trying to do too much.”
“We’ve had injuries in the past, and we’ve gotten by. It’s not nice when you lose a guy, but at the end of the day, you can’t do anything about it until he gets better and comes back. You can’t mope around, you can’t use that as an excuse. We’ve got a bunch of guys here who want to score, and want to produce. I’m sure everybody is going to step up to the plate.”
When asked about Carter’s injury, Sutter was taken aback…or, at least, he acted as if he was.
“I didn’t know we lost him,” Sutter said, incredulously, even though he obviously knew.
Reporters persisted, but Sutter angrily fired back.
“I’m not talking about it,” Sutter exclaimed. “Where do you get your information from? If it’s someone in the organization who told you, go talk to them. We haven’t been told anything.”
“I’m extremely disappointed that information is given to you before it’s given to us, if it’s coming from inside,” Sutter lamented. “That’s disappointing. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”
“Our responsibility is to protect players at all costs. For that to come out is very disappointing.”
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