ANAHEIM AND LOS ANGELES, CA — After taking a 2-0 lead in their second round playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings have dropped three straight games, and face elimination tonight when they host the Ducks in Game 6 at Staples Center in Los Angeles (6:30 PM PDT; televised on NBCSN in the United States; TSN and RDS in Canada).
What has been surprising about the Kings so far in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs is that the best defensive team in the regular season has been anything but in the post-season.
In fact, the Kings, who allowed 2.05 goals per game during the regular season have given up 2.83 goals per game in the playoffs, ranking them last on defense among remaining playoff teams, and tenth among all playoff teams.
If the Kings expect to win tonight, let alone advance in the playoffs, they must regain their defensive prowess.
Some may contend that the loss of veteran, stay-at-home defensemen Willie Mitchell, who was injured in Game 6 of the first round against San Jose on April 28, and Robyn Regher, who was lost to injury in Game 1 against Anaheim on May 3, explains the Kings’ shoddy defensive play and numerous turnovers in the post-season.
However, both were in the lineup through Game 5 (and part of Game 6) in the first round against the San Jose Sharks, who torched the Kings for twenty goals in the first four games of that series.
Although the Kings limited the Sharks to just five goals in Games 5-7, they still generated a lot of high-quality scoring chances, but were thwarted by goaltender Jonathan Quick, who stood on his head in those games.
In short, don’t blame the absence of Mitchell and Regher for the Kings’ poor defensive zone play and turnovers.
That said, their absence is a factor.
“When you have injuries on your back end, you’re always unable to support it as well as you want,” Sutter noted. “That’s the way it works with every team.”
As it is with every National Hockey League team, injuries are part of the game, and someone simply has to step in and get the job done.
“When guys go out—that’s part of the journey at this time of year,” said winger and captain Dustin Brown. “It’s an opportunity for other guys to step up. It’s not that we don’t miss those guys, but we’re not concerned. We’ve got twenty guys who can play. Those are the guys who’ve got to step up.”
Us Or Them?
Whenever the Kings hit a rough stretch, especially when their trademark defensive play and puck management escapes them, as it has for lengthy stretches during this season’s playoffs, a frequently heard refrain is that it is all about themselves, not what their opponents are doing.
In fact, such comments could be heard in their dressing room following their Game 5 loss to the Ducks.
“It’s just attention to detail,” said defenseman Alec Martinez. “You can’t give a team like that opportunities the way we did. They’ll capitalize, and they did.”
“We’ve got to play Kings hockey,” added Martinez. “I don’t think we’ve been too happy with quite a few games in this series. We’ve got to play better [in the] next game.”
That focus on themselves comes from head coach Darryl Sutter.
“Yeah, I don’t think we say that [it’s what the Ducks are doing],” he told the media on May 13. “It’s two, good hockey clubs. Basically, other than the empty-netter [scored by Kings left wing Dwight King in Game 2 on May 5], they’re all one-goal games, so you know what? Maybe we’ll get the one more tomorrow night.”
Exactly what are the Kings doing wrong?
“We turned the puck over way too many times again,” Kings left wing Marian Gaborik said about his team after their Game 5 loss. “We have to clean a lot of stuff up, but we’re [going] home, and we’re confident that we can come back here.”
“[We have to be] cleaner in the neutral zone and [get] pucks behind their defensemen all the way to the goal line,” defenseman Jake Muzzin told the media on May 13. “If we don’t get pucks all the way in there, they’re quick up, or they’ll limit our time in their zone and [that] allows them more rush time and getting pucks in our zone. Cleaner, harder plays and maybe keep it a little more simple instead of forcing some plays through the middle or trying to make a cute pass here or there. Get it behind their defensemen and go to work.”
Even though they don’t want to admit it, even the Kings must know by now that what is happening in this series is not all about them. Indeed, it is also about what the Ducks are doing that’s causing problems for the Kings in all three zones.
“They’re a hard forechecking team,” said Muzzin. “They’re getting pucks in deep and we’ve been a little sloppy in our rush coverage and transition. They’re a tight checking team and it’s given us little problems. But if we can be the best that we can be we should be able to get through that and be all right.”
“Most of it is us,” defenseman Drew Doughty told the media on May 13. “The Ducks have played really well. All four of their lines are very good, and they were all dominant in [Game 5]. A lot of it is them, but at the same time, we can control what we do, and we not doing things to the best of our ability, whether it’s individually, or as a team.”
“We just haven’t done it for three periods yet,” Doughty added. “That’s why we’ve been losing games.”
The Ducks have also been the better defensive team in this series, clamping down on key offensive players like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Justin Williams.
Kopitar has not scored a goal in this series, but has contributed six assists. Carter has scored a goal and has added two assists, while Williams has just two assists in the series.
The only player the Ducks have not been able to stop is Gaborik, who has scored five goals and has tallied two assists for seven points.
“We’ve had trouble scoring against Anaheim,” Sutter noted. “They’re doing a good job of keeping us to the outside, keeping our top players on the perimeter, not allowing them time or space. Give them credit, but some of our top guys have got to fight through.”
If the Kings want to live to see a Game 7 in Anaheim on May 16, they must come out of the gate firing on all cylinders tonight, right from the get-go.
“We need to make sure we come out fast tomorrow,” Doughty emphasized. “We need to score that first goal, and then we need to build on that lead. We can’t take even one shift off. If you take one shift off against that Getzlaf line, they’re going to make you pay for it.”
“We have to come out with a better effort, obviously,” Muzzin stressed. “In the first period [of Game 5], we were a little sloppy and in the second period, we were sloppy as well. We have to come out with a good start and continue building from what we did in the third period [in Game 5].”
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