EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the Los Angeles Kings having lost superstar goaltender Jonathan Quick indefinitely after he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, backup goaltender Jack Campbell and number three goaltender Peter Budaj are now under the proverbial microscope. That said, the Kings must score more goals without Quick to fall back on and perhaps the best way for them to start doing that is to follow Dustin Brown’s lead.
Brown made his 2018-19 regular season debut on October 28, in a 4-3 victory over the New York Rangers at Staples Center in Los Angeles after sitting out for most of October after suffering a broken finger in the Kings final pre-season game. He scored a power play goal in the second period, his only point in the game.
While some might point to Ilya Kovalchuk and his multi-point performance making him the Kings’ best player against the Rangers, it was Brown who was the best player on the ice for either team. Indeed, he was a force in all three zones, on defense as well as offense, but especially in front of the Rangers net. That’s where he scored his goal and where he made it possible for Kovalchuk to blast a one-time shot past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on the power play.
“The fact that Brown was in front of the net puts [Kovalchuk] in the right mind where he wants to shoot the hockey puck,” said head coach John Stevens. “I thought we did a much better job of getting to the net in that game. That’s been a part of our game that’s been absent. Our ability to get to the blue paint was as good as it’s been.”
Credit for that goes to Brown, mostly.
“A lot of it was because of him,” said left wing Alex Iafallo. “That’s a big part of his game and we needed that. Coming back in a game like that gives us momentum.”
“When we know he’s in front we can get it to the net and that creates rebound chances,” added Iafallo. “Once one guy does it, everybody does it. We’ve just got to keep doing that.”
“When he’s playing the game that way, he’s a real identity guy and that becomes infectious throughout your team,” Stevens observed. “I mean, not only is he a good player who plays in all situation, but he also provides leadership. He’s one guy who wants to establish his game at the net. That was very infectious for the rest of the team.”
Brown indicated that he was just playing his game.
“It was exciting to be back with the group after an extended time away,” he said. “For me, personally, it was just focusing on being a good player, taking care of my own game, hoping [that’s contagious].”
“I felt pretty good,” he added. “I got around the net and then, you look at our third goal [scored by Trevor Lewis], that was the result of guys getting to the net. I thought we were around the net, as a group, a lot more.”
While he was recovering from his injury, Brown was taking notes, so to speak, about how his team was playing and what they needed to do better.
“[We need to improve] our puck movement,” he noted. “Now that I’ve played a game—I thought that was trending in the right direction on the road. When we move the puck quickly and cleanly, that allows us to get out of our zone. That prevents us from playing those extended shifts in our defensive zone. That also flows really well into our forecheck and our possession.”
“[Against the Rangers], we had a lot more possession plays [going into the attacking zone] and a lot of really good pressure on the forecheck and that’s the result of passing the puck well coming out of our zone,” he added. “When we pass the puck well coming out of our zone, it really helps our game. If we could focus on that—it’s forwards getting back in position for the defensemen and the defensemen moving the puck quicker.”
While Brown spoke of his teammates, they were talking about him.
“It was great having him back,” said Iafallo. “His presence on the ice and his leadership in the room goes a long way. He was hungry to get back and we wanted him back. Just making plays with him and working down low, he’s a hell of a presence out there.”
“If I’m cycling the puck, he’s always strong in the corners and he’ll get the puck,” added Iafallo. “But his net front presence—that’s always been really good, especially on the power play, getting in front of the goalie, taking away his ability to see the puck, making it hard for him. That leads to goals.”
Although he did not say it explicitly, Stevens indicated that Brown’s return to the lineup was the key to his team’s success against the Rangers.
“It’s the best game we’ve played this year by a country mile, right,” Stevens noted. “Our power play was really good. I thought the urgency on the power play and the willingness to shoot the puck—you’ve to got to wonder if it’s not because [Brown was] playing at the net all the time. [Our players] know he’s there, so they’re going to shoot the puck.”
“[Brown and the rest of the Kings top power play unit] guys really took charge on the power play and had a huge impact on the game,” Stevens added. “I also thought the penalty-kill was much more aggressive and really limited their opportunities and he’s a big part of that. Our top line also had their best numbers all year, in terms of what they created and what they gave up.”
As Stevens indicated, Brown’s presence was felt in all three zones on the ice and in all situations. But as alluded to earlier, as he has done so often in recent years, Brown made his presence felt the most in front of the opponent’s net, which inspired his teammates to follow in his tracks, so to speak.
“That’s something that needs to be a staple of our game,” Brown stressed. “Everyone talks about speed and being a fast team. Although it’s true that we need to be a faster team, it’s also true that we need to be [a team that plays in the dangerous areas around the net].”
Especially in recent years, Brown has made playing in front of the net the most important part of his game. But even though it is no secret that the Kings have been lacking in net front presence up to Sunday’s game against the Rangers, he did not go into that game thinking that he had to make a special effort to go to the net.
“I’m not thinking about it,” he said. “It’s more that that’s how I’m successful. I find that it’s hard sometimes, when you’re struggling, as a player. If I can focus on getting to the net, generally, I can pull myself out of it. I think that’s a mentality our team can have, too, a little bit. When we’re really struggling, just get to the net because good things happen. Since I came into the league, the majority of goals are scored within ten feet of the net.”
“When you have players who are willing to go to the net, that forces certain players to get the puck to the net more often,” he added. “It’s kind of like putting the chicken before the egg. You can’t be shooting the puck when there’s no one at the net these days because in the NHL, the goalies are too good. If I get to the net, that forces [Anze Kopitar] to throw the puck there. It forces other guys to get the puck there more often because you’re working your [rear end] off to get there and battle.”
“We have players who are capable of [getting to the net] and the more we get those players there, that forces others to go to the net. Like I said, good things happen. [For example, Trevor Lewis’] goal wasn’t pretty. But it was a big goal and no one really cares how pretty the goals are.”
Without their superstar goaltender for the long haul, the Kings must address their scoring woes. They won’t be able to even start down that road unless they follow Brown’s lead to the front of the net. But the question is: Will they?
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings winger Dustin Brown (right), shown here with goaltender Jack Campbell during practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California on October 30, 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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