EL SEGUNDO, CA — Through three rounds of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings have an 11-8 post-season record and their eight losses can be chalked up to, primarily, poor defensive play.
That was also apparent in their 5-4, double overtime loss in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks on May 28, in Chicago.
Game 5 turned out to be somewhat reminiscent of the firewagon, run-and-gun hockey often seen in the National Hockey League back in the Eighties.
But as a team that relies primarily on its defense, not only to prevent goals against, but to generate a counter punch and a forecheck in the attacking zone, the Kings cannot afford to play that style, no matter how thrilling and entertaining it was to watch.
“I think they played a very good game,” said left wing Marian Gaborik. “I think for the fans, [Game 5] was unbelievable to watch. But for us, it wasn’t the type of game we wanted to play, you know, trade chances, trade odd-man rushes. We don’t want to play that way.”
“We want to make sure we stay tight on those guys, not give them a lot of speed through the neutral zone, and just not give them time and space,” added Gaborik. “With that type of team, we don’t want to do that because usually, they would come on top of us. They’re such a great talent and offensive power. Even though we scored some goals that way, that’s not our game to play.”
“[We’ve] just got to play our game. We have to fix quite a few [things] from last night and just go from there.”
Center Anze Kopitar, a finalist for this season’s Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s best defensive forward, agreed.
“I’m sure [Game 5 was] fun for the fans,” he observed. “But from a structure point of view, we wanted to tighten it up. You definitely don’t want to trade chances with them. They’re that type of team where if you [do] that, it’s usually not going to end well.”
“We’re known not to play that kind of hockey,” he added. “This time of the year, that doesn’t work, usually. We’ve got to get back to playing our game.”
The view was the same from the blue line.
“When you’re playing against a team like the Chicago Blackhawks, you can’t be trading chances like that,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “If [we] give them the rush game, they’re going to beat us that way. We need to get back to LA Kings style hockey—check’em hard, get the puck in and cycle them that way.”
“We don’t want that many chances against,” added Doughty. “We’re giving up way too many goals. We don’t give up goals like that. We’re a team that plays very good defensive hockey, and when we’re trading chances against a team like Chicago, we’re not going to win that battle. They’ve got more goal scorers, and more talent on offense, as a whole.”
“We’ve got to play our style of game in order to win.”
The Blackhawks are averaging 3.00 goals per game against the Kings in the series, and if you’ve followed the Kings since Darryl Sutter took over as head coach, you know that his mantra has been…
“It’s a 3-2 league,” as he has said numerous times.
“Usually when you give up three goals or more in the game, that usually gets you in trouble,” said Kopitar. “We want to focus on that, too.”
“I think the one thing we have to shore up is the goals we’re giving up,” Sutter noted. “That’s the area we have to tighten up, make sure those little details, whether it’s a puck hanging around our net or off the rush, let’s make sure we’re cleaner.”
In Game 5, the Blackhawks’ forward line of Patrick Kane, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad took advantage of the relatively lax defense, skating circles around the Kings whenever they were on the ice.
Saad scored a goal and added two assists, Kane tallied four assists, and Shaw contributed two assists—they combined for a goal and eight assists for nine points in the game.
“Yeah, [Kane and Saad] did some damage last night,” said Kopitar. “We’ve got to check them better, obviously. There’s really not a special format. You’ve just got to eliminate time and space because when they do start carrying the puck all over the ice, it’s hard to catch them. They’re good players and they’re going to make plays.”
“We let some of their top guys off the hook, like Kane, [Patrick] Sharp, Saad—guys like that,” Doughty lamented. “They switched their lines up, but that doesn’t affect us with line matchups, or anything like that. We still need to play harder on their top guys [If we give] Kane space out there to make plays, and kind of weave around and do his thing, he’s going to make us hurt, and he did last night.”
Indeed, Kane, Saad and Shaw seemed to be able to do whatever they wanted against whatever skaters Sutter put out onto the ice against them—his defensive pair of Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov were torched by that line for two of the three goals they were on the ice for.
“I think the guys that played against them last night were not on top of their game,” said Sutter.
Game 6: A Must-Win For The Kings
Tonight’s Game 6 is not a must-win situation for the Kings, not mathematically, anyway.
But for all of the most important reasons, it is. Indeed, if the Blackhawks win tonight, they will have grabbed all the momentum in the series, taking all the wind out of the Kings’ sails. Moreover, the series finale would be played in Chicago, where the Blackhawks enjoy a huge advantage at the United Center. Not only are they extremely difficult to beat at home, but they also feed off the energy from their fans—many claim that the United Center is the loudest building in the league.
“We know we can’t let it go to Game 7,” Doughty emphasized. “They’re a good team in their home arena. They feed off their fans. It’s a tough arena to play in, so we need to win tomorrow.”
“No matter what, [Game 6] has to be ours,” Doughty added. “It’s so important for us to advance to the Stanley Cup Final that we win this game. If we give them this game, they’re going to have so much more life, they’re going to be a different team. We need to take the energy away from them.”
Despite all that, the Kings do not seem to be feeling any added pressure going into such a huge game.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a whole lot of pressure,” said Gaborik. “Everybody feels some sort of a pressure coming into any game, to perform. Of course, tomorrow is the biggest game of the season for us, so we’re going to make sure and we will approach it that way. Everybody will be ready to play. Hopefully, we can have a good start like we did Game 4.”
“Now we’re back home at Staples [Center],” said Doughty. “We’re not going to allow them to take the crowd out [of the game]. We’re not going to allow them to get the early start. It’s going to be the other way around, this time.”
“We’ve got to come out early and come out better in the first period, this time,” added Doughty. “We know what we’ve got to do to be better against those top guys and take them out of their game.”
In order for the Kings to turn the tables on the Blackhawks after their win in Game 5, they will need to be a lot better.
“I’m sure that we’re going to have to play better than we did last night,” said Sutter. “I said that the other night. Some of you guys looked at me glazed over, but it’s true. If you’re not finding ways to get better or think you can get better, then you’re kind of staying where you are.”
“At the end of the day, you want to be able to max it out,” added Sutter. “If you max it out and you’re fortunate enough to win, then you move on. If you max out and you don’t, then you say, ‘Hey, we did our best.’”
Handing the Blackhawks a little payback for last season could provide some motivation.
“We know how good a team they are,” Doughty noted. “We know they know how to win. We also know that they took our Cup from us last year. Now it’s our turn.”
“We want to eliminate this team,” Doughty added. “They eliminated us last year. It’s our turn to return the favor. We need to go into Staples Center tomorrow believing that we can eliminate this team, and do just that.”
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