By Allan Muir
You know that old saying, “A change is as good as a rest”?
The Los Angeles Kings looked like a team desperate for some serious downtime in dropping the first two games of the Western Conference Finals in Chicago, and playing their third game in four nights seemed like a recipe for disaster.
But ditching the United Center for the friendly confines of the Staples Center, along with a bit of creative line juggling by coach Darryl Sutter, helped them find their legs. The loose, energized Kings reversed the whip on the Blackhawks, beating them 3-1 in Game 3 and trimming their series lead to 2-1.
This was the Kings at their best. They played the body, controlled the neutral zone, limited Chicago to just 20 shots and, finally, capitalized on their chances against Corey Crawford.
Justin Williams, who always seems to ramp up his game when this team needs him the most, opened the scoring just 3:21 into the game, finishing off a slick cross-ice pass from Slava Voynov with a snapper from the left circle that beat Crawford short side. Voynov later scored the winner with a shot that broke his stick, fooling Crawford with its trajectory. Dwight King finished the scoring into the empty net to seal the win and remind everyone that the defending champs won’t go down without a fight.
Here are some more thoughts and observations from Game 3:
• The Kings had to control the neutral zone in this one if they wanted to slow down Chicago’s attack. They did that, but more important, they took the fight into the Blackhawks’ end, forcing them to go 200 feet and then bogging down their transition game before they could use their speed to their advantage.
• When (if?) Mike Richards makes his return to the lineup, don’t be surprised to see Sutter leave Jeff Carter at center. Carter, filling in for Richards on the second line, was the best player on the ice by a long stretch, setting up the final two goals for Los Angeles and winning 62 percent of his draws. But it was his ability to get to and control the puck that really set him apart, and those opportunities came because he was playing his natural center position. The extra ice allowed him to exploit Chicago’s defense, especially in the neutral zone, where they had no answer for his speed and aggressive puck pursuit.
The Kings have trouble lighting the lamp. Carter is their most gifted sniper. Leaving him in a position to succeed only makes sense.
• Proof that Sutter has the stones to make that kind of bold move: his decision to start the game with Jarret Stoll centering the first line and dropping the struggling Anze Kopitar to the third unit. It worked like a charm…sort of. Stoll’s grit on the boards and determined defensive play added a spark to Williams and Dustin Brown early on, while Kopitar was dynamite on the draw (63 percent) and his work on the cycle kept the ‘Hawks pinned in their zone for long stretches during a Kings-dominated first period.
But the shift did nothing to shake the struggling superstar out of his offensive funk. Forget shots. Kopitar didn’t even muster a shot attempt on the night. Tough to break out of a slump when you’re not even trying to get pucks toward the net. Sutter had him back with his usual linemates in the third, but that didn’t help, either.
With just one goal in his last 12 games, Kopitar is due for a breakout, but it won’t come unless he spends less time along the boards and more time battling for space in front of Crawford.
• Sutter stressed the importance of taking care of the puck before this game. Take a look at the takeaway numbers, and its fair to say the Kings responded. After being stripped of the puck 26 times in Games 1 and 2, the Kings were swindled only once in Game 3. It’s worth noting that the takeaway stat might be the most highly subjective of any of the numbers compiled by the NHL, but even if viewed with a bit of skepticism, it’s clear that Los Angeles did a much better job tonight.
• The Kings are now 8-0 at home in the playoffs. The NHL playoff record for consecutive home wins is 11, set by the Oilers in 1988. If L.A. wants to match, or break, the mark this season, they’ll have to do more than hold serve in this series. They’ll have to find a way to win one in Chicago. The formula was on display tonight. The trick now is transferring that level of energy and execution to the United Center.
• When things are going good, like, say, a team winning five straight games, no one wants to bring down the room by suggesting that someone isn’t carrying his weight.
Lose a game — a pivotal game — however, and everyone’s play is up for review.
Look at the stat sheet and there’s evidence Patrick Kane was in the lineup for the ‘Hawks. His four shot attempts were topped only by Bryan Bickell. The 18:35 he spent at five-on-five was the most for any forward on either team. So how is it that he was virtually invisible the entire game?
No one’s questioning Kane’s skill. And it’s fair to assume he wouldn’t be logging those minutes if he was nursing any kind of serious injury. So after going seven games without a goal, and five games without making a real impact, maybe Kane needs a dose of courage and a map to the front of the Kings’ net. Right now, he’s settling for the easy ice off the boards and away from the middle. As long as he does that, he’ll be an empty sweater for the ‘Hawks.
• Another night, another love letter to Bickell. He scored Chicago’s only goal on a no-hurry wraparound that saw him whip out from behind the net and take two steps out front instead of just jamming away short side. Those steps forced Jonathan Quick to go into a full butterfly, and Bickell exploited the brief five-hole that opened up. A play like that proves he’s more than just a blunt instrument. Quick’s tough to beat on the wrap, and he figured out exactly how to do it. Smart.
Bickell authored Chicago’s only other 10-bell scoring chance when he picked up his own rebound in front of Quick and mailed a shot to the top corner. The goalie flung up his arm and deflected the shot with the inside of his blocker, easily his best save on a night when he bounced back from a quick trip to the showers in Game 2.
Maybe the Hawks’ coaches should add a Bickell highlight video to that care package they need to put together for Kane. Pretty clear why he has more than twice as many goals as Kane and Jonathan Toews combined. He knows where they keep the free bunnies.
• Maybe now Niklas Hjalmarsson will figure out that turning sideways to block a shot isn’t exactly flawless technique. If he didn’t already understand that style exposes plenty of unprotected flesh to all the damage a 100-mph slap shot can cause, he does now.
But before we give him too much grief, how about that huge display of courage? The big defender was dropped by a Voynov bomb in the third period and laid there on the ice for a few moments. When he realized play was continuing, he dragged himself to his feet and shambled to the front of the net where he did whatever he could to prevent the ‘Hawks from being shorthanded…including dropping to try to block a couple more shots. It was reminiscent of that great sequence from the 2000 Cup Final when Dallas’ Darryl Sydor was hobbled by a hard hit and then spent the next 25 seconds dragging himself toward the Stars’ net. That’s playoff-caliber valor right there.
• A lot was made of the nasty high stick that Duncan Keith raked across the mouth of Carter, but the game’s most egregious foul came after the final whistle when Andrew Shaw speared, or at least attempted to spear, Carter in the groin. Not sure if the incident will catch the eye of the Department of Player Safety. If it does, it could cost Shaw a couple of games.