EL SEGUNDO, CA — Perhaps the most obvious reason that the Los Angeles Kings have won five straight games is because they have scored timely goals and have gotten the balanced scoring they have lacked all season long.
But that’s just the easy answer. The real starting point, when looking for the root cause of the Kings’ recent success lies 200 feet away, in their own zone.
Indeed, much-improved defensive play and penalty-killing have been the fundamental differences and the most important, most significant reasons behind the Kings’ current five-game winning streak.
“We’re working from our end out, below the puck,” said forward Jeff Carter. “We’re not cheating for offense, and we’re making plays. It’s simple hockey, really. It’s what you’re supposed to do to be effective out there.”
“We’ve gotten better defensively, we’ve gotten better below the goal line, and at how quick we’ve been [there],” said center Jarret Stoll. “Maybe in the first half of the season, we weren’t back there, as defensemen, as centermen, supporting the defensemen. That’s why we were spending a little more time in our zone, and it’s tough playing in your own zone. It takes a toll on you, and eventually, it’s not going to be good.”
“We had a tough stretch there where we spent a lot of time in our own zone, and we gave up a lot of goals,” added Stoll. “It’s no secret.”
Left wing Dwight King agreed.
“We’ve had lapses over the year,” he said. “We’ve played ten minutes good, then five minutes bad, even less than that. It’s poor judgement with the puck.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter could not stress the importance of cutting down on goals against enough.
“Goals against is important,” he emphasized. “If you can’t be in the top ten in the league, you’re not going to be in the playoffs, that’s for sure.”
All season long, the Kings, who had been at, or near, the top of the league defensively for the last three seasons, were not among the top ten teams.
But now, during their current five-game winning streak, the Kings have allowed an average of 2.20 goals per game. To put that into perspective, the Montreal Canadiens lead the league defensively, allowing 2.18 goals per game.
Moreover, the Kings’ recent play has moved them…you guessed it…into the tenth spot in the National Hockey League on defense.
“You try to eliminate the goals against,” said King. “Your zone is a huge part of that. Closing on [opposing] players and getting out of your zone is what any team tries to do.”
Sutter also emphasized his team’s improved penalty-killing as a factor.
“I think we’ve managed to kill penalties right through [the five-game winning streak], and not taking many,” he noted.
In fact, during those five games, the Kings allowed just one power play goal on ten opportunities for their opponents with the man advantage, good for a 90 percent rating.
To put that into perspective, the Kings’ penalty-killing rating for the season is just 78.5 percent (ranked 26th). The Chicago Blackhawks are the best penalty-killing team in the league with an 87.9% rating.
Defense Creates Offense
The Kings’ dramatically improved defense has directly translated into the ability to break out of their zone quickly and cleanly. To put it simply, that means more time spent in the attacking zone and on the forecheck, resulting in more goals and balanced scoring.
“Goals against are down, our penalty-kill has been a lot better, and in five-on-five play, we’re playing as a group of five,” said rookie defenseman Brayden McNabb. “We’re tighter, as a group, in all three zones. You can see how much more effective we are when we do that.”
“We’re closer together to make those short, hard, five-to-ten-foot [breakout] plays,” added McNabb. “That makes it harder on the forecheckers. When you can make the short, easy plays, as a group of five in the defensive zone, and get out, it translates to good offense. We’ve got to continue to do that.”
“I think we’ve been pretty efficient [in] where we’ve been putting pucks, our passing,” said King. “Execution has been [at a] higher [level] than it has been [all season]. That just leads to cleaner hockey and more offensive zone time.”
Right wing Tyler Toffoli, who leads the team in goals scored (18), has been a recipient of those quicker, cleaner breakout plays.
“We’re taking care of our own zone,” he noted. “We’re moving pucks fast, coming out of our zone quickly. That’s how we’re getting a lot of our chances, off the rush.”
The heavier, harder defensive zone play also has a wear-down effect on the opponent.
“I think it’s a group effort,” King noted. “It starts with the goalie on out, but I think we’ve been harder to play against in our own zone, which makes it harder on other teams. It wears them down, which is our style of hockey. That’s nice to see.”
“That’s where it all starts for us,” Stoll emphasized. “Maybe some teams aren’t like that—they’re more of a run-and-gun track meet, a very highly-skilled team. We don’t feel that we’re that team. We’re a good defensive team, and if we’re going to make the playoffs, we’ve got to be even better defensively, and cut our goals against down even more.”
The challenge now, with so many teams still in the hunt for a playoff berth, is to keep it going.
“It gets harder every year,” Stoll lamented. “There’s more and more teams in the race every year, it seems like. I think, in years past, to get that seventh or eighth seed, you had three or four teams. Now there’s more teams who are right there. We all know the last 25 or 30 games of the season, how many three-point games (in the standings) there are, so making up ground is tough. Making up three, five, six points is really hard.”
“You’ve got to put a streak together,” Stoll added. “If you want to make the playoffs, you’ve got to have at least one good winning streak during the course of the season, maybe two, and then be consistent throughout that. I think that’ll get you into the playoffs. If you don’t get that, you’re not playing consistently enough, and you’re not going to make it.”
What will it take to keep their current momentum going?
“We have to keep building on our game, and keep working from our end out, something we’ve been working on the last couple of weeks,” said Carter. “We’re starting to see it come around.”
“We’re just looking at our game, our structure, the way we’re playing, the intensity, the physical play, timely goals, timely saves—that’s what’s been successful for us in the past.” said Stoll. “We’re not looking at the winning streak.”
“If we play this way, we’ll win games,” added Stoll. “We know that. Four or five-game winning streak? That doesn’t matter to us. We’ve just got to get points. We know that if we don’t play the way we’ve played lately, we’re not going to get those points. That’s kind of our mindset.”
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