EL SEGUNDO, CA — That the Los Angeles Kings are off to a dreadful start to the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs is not just surprising, but you could say that it is also understating the situation.
Sure, one could argue that they overcame greater odds in 2014 when they came all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks to win their first round playoff series, 4-3.
Although history could repeat itself, we can pretty much forget about that this time around—there are too many differences.
“This is a completely different situation,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar. “Our mindset has got to be to go up there and win the next game, and then build off that. That’s what we’re putting into our heads. We’re going to go up there and be better.”
If the Kings are going to be better, starting in Game 3 tonight at SAP Center in San Jose, they’ve got a ton of work to do, as the Sharks have controlled play in all three zones, especially through the middle of the ice, in the first two games of the series.
“It was pretty much the same [as Game 1],” Kopitar said of his team’s 2-1 loss in Game 2 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. “Lots of power plays both ways. We got it close, but five-on-five, [we’re] not nearly good enough.”
“They’re doing their part, and we’re not doing our part,” Kopitar added. “When we get on the plane [on Sunday], we’ve got to get it into our heads that we’ve got to play better, and we will play better.”
“We started out good, and then, kind of let up the pressure,” said forward Trevor Lewis. “They got their forecheck going, and that gave them some momentum in the second [period]. In the third, we got scored on early and we couldn’t get another one.”
In both games, the Sharks controlled the middle of the ice, from one end of the ice to the other while their forecheck wreaked havoc in the Kings zone. That bottled the Kings up in their own zone, preventing them from building speed through the neutral zone on their breakouts—speed on attack is fundamental to their style of play and without it, they were unable to generate much of anything offensively.
“Their forecheck is one of the biggest parts of their game,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “That’s probably one of the things they’re best at, as a team. We knew that going in, and we knew that we’d have to make good plays coming out of the defensive zone. But we weren’t able to do that. That was definitely a factor.”
“A lot of teams have that sweep forecheck, where they have the defensemen pinching, but they’re not hitting you as much,” added Doughty. “When you’re going back for pucks, knowing that a guy is going to finish you, you kind of think twice, sometimes. You’re not scared to go in there, but you’re thinking, ‘I might get banged here if I beat the first guy.’ You think about that, and we try to do the same thing—bang on the first guy and try to [force] turnovers. Both teams are good at it, but they were better at it.”
Puck support—closing the gap between the forwards and defensemen as they move out of their zone, allowing short, quick passes—is key.
“We just have to come back, make that first pass, with good [puck] support,” Gaborik noted. “That’s the solution, and we’re working on other things, as well. But if that first pass is in [the recipient’s] skates, you lose that half-second, and the [opposing player] is right on you. It’s tight. We just have to execute passes, stick-on-stick, and be quick.”
“We have to use our feet,” Gaborik added. “We have fast forwards, but if you try to go from a standstill, it’s tough. We have to keep our speed, skate and move our feet as [a five-man unit]. It doesn’t do us any good if one guy is skating, but the rest are standing still. We’ve got to work off each other and get some speed. That’s how we get chances off the rush, or create separation.”
Execution has been a problem, overall.
“We need to play faster, we have to execute,” Gaborik emphasized. “We made a lot of sloppy plays.”
“We have to make it harder for [Sharks and former Kings goaltender Martin] Jones to make saves,” Gaborik added. “We don’t see a lot of pretty goals in the playoffs, so we need to work for every chance, every goal, especially in the blue paint, and try to hit the net with a purpose. Even if it’s not a great chance, we have to try to make it so there’s a rebound or a second chance. We have to get those second and third opportunities. We have to crash the net even more, and throw pucks at the net.”
As far as shooting is concerned, it’s not just getting rebound chances.
“There [were] several great opportunities [in Game 2] by our top players that [Jones] couldn’t see, but he didn’t have to stop [them],” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “I can think of four or five. He didn’t see them, but they weren’t on the net.”
“The first shots that we’re getting are missing the net, so we’re breaking them out on our own,” Kopitar noted. “It’s hard when you don’t get that spray around the net, and create the second opportunities off that.”
If you thought their shots were off the mark, the Kings’ passing hasn’t been much better.
“They’re playing together,” said left wing Milan Lucic. “They’re playing their system well, they’re executing, making tape-to-tape passes. We’re not making tape-to-tape passes. It’s a simple thing. It’s execution and the fundamentals of hockey that they’re better at right now, and that’s why they’re winning.”
The Kings’ captain agreed.
“I just think we can play better,” said forward Dustin Brown. “We just weren’t sharp. For us to get in on the forecheck and play our game, we need to pass the puck well. But we weren’t moving it quickly, or moving it crisply. That played a big factor for us.”
“We need to get back to doing what we can do, and that’s using four lines and six defensemen, playing good defense,” said Doughty. “We can’t win games, 5-4. We have to be getting back to one or two goals against per game.”
Acknowledging that he has been outplayed by a wide margin by San Jose center Joe Pavelski so far in this series, Kopitar said that wasn’t acceptable.
“I definitely have to be better,” he said. “I take pride in leading the team, and for me, this is just not good enough. I’ve got to bring it a lot better on Monday.”
Despite their 2-0 deficit in the series, the Kings know there is, potentially, five games left in the series—there’s no panic in the Kings dressing room.
“We’ve got to wear’em down,” said Lewis. “It’s a long series. We have to be physical on’em, and make’em play in their own end.”
“The sense of urgency needs to be stepped up, not that it shouldn’t have been there yesterday, because this is the playoffs,” said Doughty.
“We weren’t very good,” said Brown. “Everyone can be better. But this is the time of year where you can’t dwell on it. You have to go on, and we’ve got a lot left in us.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing Marian Gaborik. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.