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Kings vs Rangers

Kings swarm, suffocate without the puck

Tuesday, 06.03.2014 / 11:11 PM / Kings vs Rangers - 2014 Stanley Cup Final

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Kings swarm, suffocate without the puck
The Los Angeles Kings have been the NHL's best defensive team during the past three seasons. They do it by trying not to play defense.

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Kings have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL since the start of the 2011-12 season because of a roster filled with defensively-sound players that successfully execute coach Darryl Sutter's system.

And they do it by trying not to play defense.

The Kings prevent goals by not letting teams have the puck in the offensive zone. Other defense-oriented teams try to do the same, but typically take a more passive approach.

Los Angeles doesn't just want opposing teams to give up the puck. The Kings want to take it off them.

"They suffocate you," NHL Network and CBC analyst Kevin Weekes said. "They make you very uncomfortable. They make you play under duress. There's usually not just one guy, but often two or three guys pressuring you. Maybe you can beat one guy, but there is a second guy or a third guy that are relatively close. Their timing and space when they're on is pretty impeccable. And oh, by the way, you have to skate through a lot of big, heavy men."

Two seasons ago Sutter replaced Terry Murray at midseason and the Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Jonathan Quick had a historic postseason, and the perception that Los Angeles relies on its goaltender has lingered.

Since the start of the 2011-12 season Quick is tied for 11th in save percentage among goalies who have made at least 60 starts. The Kings are a great goal-prevention team because they play so well without the puck and then are so great at keeping it.

They don't want to play defense in their own end. Sutter's philosophy is to press teams further up the ice. The Kings often will send two and even three players into the offensive zone to forecheck when the other team has the puck.

If the opposing team can get the puck out its own zone, there is more pressure to deal with in the neutral zone.

"I would say it is more aggressive than people think," TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. "In the neutral zone they want their defensemen up on the walls. If the puck goes D-to-D and then to the winger, they're going to pinch their defenseman (think of it as hockey's version of a half-court trap).

"If they can cut the ice in half, now they swarm where the puck is and they can check. They get to positions, they turn it around and now they've got the short ice to attack. That's when they look fast to me. If you line them up on the goal line they are not a very fast team, but they play fast."

It has become the team's identity, and Sutter can be a demanding boss. Still, he has the players to pull off such a pressure-packed game plan.

Anze Kopitar is a Selke Trophy finalist this season and is one of the top two-way centers in the world. Mike Richards was considered to be in that elite group of players a few years ago and remains a great defensive player even if his offensive numbers have slipped. Sutter has called Jarret Stoll a perfect checking-line center.

"It is a system that is really democratic," Ferraro said. "Everybody does what they are supposed to do. There are no shortcuts. Their best player [Kopitar] does it. He checks. So Jeff Carter now? He checks. I've watched him play here. He checks. If your best guys are doing it, then everybody else just falls in line."

"Structurally it isn't all that different, but the commitment to doing it is very different," Weekes said. "The IQ of all the players that do it is different. It is one thing to think the game offensively, but it's another to be able to think it on the other side of the puck. Their best players do, starting with Anze Kopitar. It becomes infectious and it becomes a mandate."

Sutter is a detail-oriented coach, and he will withhold playing time from his top players if they are not adhering to the standard of play he expects. Defense wasn't a problem before he arrived, but offense was.

By playing the way Sutter wants, the Kings have been able to generate more offense. They were the best possession team in the NHL this season, but a low shooting percentage dragged down the team's goal production.

The shooting percentage has progressed toward the mean and the goals now are coming. Combine that with the ability to play sound defensive hockey, which began during Murray's tenure, and the Kings are four victories from claiming the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons.

"I think even before Darryl got here, Terry Murray was super defensive," Kings forward Colin Fraser said. "It is just embedded in these guys. [Kopitar and Dustin Brown] and those guys, they came into the League and it was always defense first. Then came Darryl, and we all know how he coaches, with a heavy, strong team. It's always defense-first. All of the Sutters are like that. But if you get these guys when they're 18, 19 years old, the core guys, and they buy into it, it's almost second nature.

"With Terry it was more of a sit-back kind of style. If you sit back too much, you're never going to win games. You still have to score goals. More so than before we definitely try to play an up-tempo style. It is on your toes. We're not sitting back."

Given the aggressive nature of how the Kings play, it is a high-risk, high-reward style. Over the course of the regular season there will be nights with breakdowns and more chances yielded than normal. It's a sacrifice they are willing to make to instill a consistent way to play.

"I think we play that up-tempo, physical style. It is pucks ahead all the time," Fraser said. "Is it hard to play that way over an 82-game season? Yeah. It is hard to bring that every night, foot on the gas, go-go-go. Other teams might try to slow it down, make those skilled plays. It might be easier when you catch us on an off night and we're a little behind the play or in-between, in my opinion anyway.

"In the playoffs, when everything is on the line, you're going to bring your best every night so it is easier to play this way."

The Kings have not prevented goals as well consistently in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs as they did during the regular season. Some of that is the competition. Los Angeles has faced three of the top six offensive clubs in the League in the first three rounds.

Some of that is Quick's play. His save percentage during the past three seasons is .919, but he's at .906 in this postseason.

They have been able to turn up the defensive pressure at times and flummox elite offensive teams. They are going to try and do the same to the New York Rangers. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is Wednesday at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

"The rink gets smaller, not only because of their physical size and the depth they have, but the way they swarm and play with strength in numbers. That's it in a nutshell," NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk said. "They understand where the pressure points are and they go ahead and flood to that area. If you look at the Chicago series, when [the Kings] were able to shut it down, it was a game of keep away. [The Blackhawks] couldn't get the puck back when they gave it up."


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