LOS ANGELES -- Goals aren't scored in the neutral zone, but games can be won or lost there. The Western Conference Final is the latest example of the importance of that 50-feet-by-85-feet area in the middle of the ice.
The Chicago Blackhawks dominated the neutral zone in Games 1 and 2. They came out to Los Angeles with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
The Los Angeles Kings were without a shadow of a doubt the better team in the neutral zone in Game 3 on Tuesday at Staples Center -- and they got back into the series with a 3-1 victory.
Here are four reasons that showed how the Kings were able to flip it on the Blackhawks in Game 3:
Simply put, the Kings outskated the Blackhawks. They were quicker to loose pucks and that gave them a chance to establish possession in the offensive zone -- an area that was sorely lacking for them at United Center.
"For whatever reason, they seemed to have more jump than we did," Blackhawks left wing Patrick Sharp told NHL.com. "At the United Center, I thought our legs were moving pretty well and when you're skating like that, you're going to get to loose pucks first and win those battles. [In Game 3], I think it's safe to say they won more battles than we did."
The Blackhawks had 20 shots on goal, but 10 of those came in the third period when they were trying (unsuccessfully) to make a push. Los Angeles' ability to skate and get to the puck first forced the Blackhawks to play on their heels instead of their toes. Chicago is not effective when it has to play that way.
"They were getting to loose pucks, keeping plays alive, pinning us in our zone," Sharp said. "It doesn't happen often, but they did a good job of it."
2. Smart decisions with the puck
The Kings were able to gain the zone because once they began to win the battles for loose pucks, they smartly got them in deep. With the Blackhawks on their heels, skating backwards, the Kings’ forwards were able to chase the puck down and get their cycle game going.
Chicago's typically dangerous counterattack isn't a concern when L.A. has the puck deep in the zone.
"I thought our forwards were tremendous with the puck, just making the right decision," Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "They have probably the best skating defense in the League as a group. They really get up in their face and challenge our forwards and you have to put it behind them at times. I know we have creative guys with skill and they want to try to make plays, but when they have that kind of gap and pressure, you have to put it behind them and make them play defense. I thought our forwards did a great job of that."
Scuderi said the Kings were guilty of trying to make too many fancy plays in the neutral zone in Games 1 and 2 when they should have been getting the puck in deep like they did in Game 3.
"I'm hoping we just learned our lesson from Chicago," he said. "Sometimes you're not going to have the perfect play. You just have to make the safe play and put it into an undangerous area, if you want to say that. If you're going to give it up, at least put it in a spot where it's not a prime offensive opportunity. It's hard for them to make transition passes when the puck is sitting on the boards the entire night."
"Crawford was playing a lot of pucks in the first two games and he's a better puck handler than what we saw in the first two rounds," Regehr said. "When he's handling the puck, that doesn't allow us to forecheck the way we want."
3. Trapping Chicago's transition game
While the Kings rely on their forecheck to get the puck into the offensive zone, the Blackhawks want to use their transition game to go on the offensive. Both start in the neutral zone.
Chicago's transition game worked well for in Games 1 and 2 because the Kings were turning the puck over in the neutral zone. It was non-existent in Game 3 because the Kings handled the puck better and forced Chicago into turnovers in the neutral zone.
As a result, the Blackhawks were not able to generate offense off the rush and their stretch pass was not a real factor either. The Kings simply didn't let them have the puck enough to be dangerous.
"We're more of a forecheck heavy team and you look at Games 1 and 2, we couldn't really get a good forecheck because we couldn't get through the neutral zone," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "[Tuesday night], we eliminated our turnovers, which eliminates a lot of their transition game. They have to come 200-feet to score goals.
"Their transition game is where their bread and butter is," he continued. "They've got really mobile 'D,' so when you turn the puck over in the neutral zone, it becomes an odd-man rush [against] and I thought we did a good job of getting it deep and making them come 200 feet."
4. Throwing their weight around
Being physical is a big part of the Kings' game. When they hit, especially in the neutral zone, it means their forecheck is working and they are wearing down the opponent, which typically leads to winning battles for loose pucks.
The Kings were physical throughout Game 3 and the Blackhawks struggled to respond.
Regehr had a big hit on Bryan Bickell that knocked the Blackhawks’ big forward out of the game for the last nine minutes of the first period. Kings center Anze Kopitar knocked Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook onto the ice late in the first period. Brown sent Sharp to the dressing room with two minutes left in the second period when he delivered a strong hit to the chest in the neutral zone.
"They were physical all over the ice," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We just have to keep our feet moving. We kind of got flat-footed, we were watching each other a little bit too much. When you're standing still, you're an easy target for them to come hit you."
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