Darryl Sutter memorably alluded to his avoidance of decompressing (Story) after the Kings were eliminated in the Western Conference Final last spring, though after an jarring January, it’s hard to imagine players and coaches alike not wanting to take a deep breath while assessing and purging the abrupt change of fortunes that have recalibrated the team’s targets within a much more down-to-earth Western Conference.
And while the Columbus Blue Jackets will enter Staples Center on Thursday night red hot and in a battle for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, could the Kings have a special weapon or two in their corner during their final home game of the month?
“I think as a team, we took a step forward,” Anze Kopitar said in reference to a 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Monday night in which his line combined for seven points. Kopitar recorded his third three-point game of the season.
“It doesn't show on the scoreboard, but I thought that second period - our first half of the second period - was as good of hockey as we've played all year. We realize that and now we have to do that for 60 minutes.”
Facing little resistance through the middle frame on Monday, Los Angeles consistently entered the attacking zone on rushes and generated their best offensive zone time during the first half of the second period against a worthy Chicago defense. Trailing by a goal after 20 minutes, they tied the score when Tyler Toffoli gained the attacking blue line and offered a soft saucer pass over to Kopitar, who got little on the shot, though because of his momentum to the net was able to “chip” the puck past Corey Crawford to tie the game.
Impressively, Toffoli’s pass was set up on his backhand. Because of the team’s need for scoring on the left side, he has alternated to the opposite width of the ice from his more comfortable position on the right wing.
“I think they make it easy. They make it so we can all be pretty versatile,” Toffoli said. “Carts come over to the left, and I go over to the right a little bit. I mean, they’re both really easy players to play with. They make things easier for me, and we’ve just got to keep creating chances and keep trying to help the team win.”
Sutter acknowledged that among the challenges Toffoli will face in the in moving from the right to the left side will be the course in which he drives towards the net.
“It’s harder to get your feet adjusted. You can get your hands, if you’ve got good hands, adjusted. Take it to your backhand,” Sutter said. “But it’s your feet, not just coming out of your zone. It’s your feet entering the zone. It’s your feet how you take pucks to the net. It’s an adjustment.”
While the Kopitar line appears to be an asset, there are challenges in placing together the right combination of skaters to improve Los Angeles’ offensive standing, which ranks 29th in the league in the lead-up to the final game of the pre-Olympic schedule. The Kings average 2.26 goals per game.
With the grouping of Kopitar with Carter and the placement of Toffoli to the left of the team’s most productive duo, three players have not benefited statistically at all.
The Dustin Brown – Mike Richards – Justin Williams line is yet to produce one goal since being aligned together in the 1-0 win over San Jose on January 27. All three players have been held without a point; over that span Brown is a minus-6, Richards is a minus-4, and Williams is a minus-5.
Those aren’t the most encouraging figures. But if you ask individual members of the line, the loss to Chicago on Monday represented a step forward, even if the trio produced a collective minus-two performance.
“We had five or six Grade-A scoring chances,” Brown said of Monday’s game. “We didn't score on them, but we go back a few games where we're not even getting Grade-A scoring chances. There are slumps and ups and downs, but there are two types of it - when you're not getting chances at all, and a game like Chicago where we're getting our chances and we're just not finding the back of the net.”
“You don't like either one, but it's definitely a positive that you're getting chances. Over time, the type of players that we have - me, Rick and Justin, if we continue to get those chances, it's going to go in the net for us.”
Sutter also sensed a step in the right direction.
“I thought their line had a lot of opportunities. They’ve struggled, obviously, with the scoring part of it. If you break it down, it was well documented with those three guys the last five weeks, so I’m not going to critique that. But I think the last game they had plenty of opportunities, and when they don’t score, they can’t let that become a sag part of their game on a shift to shift basis. It’s something you have to be mentally strong about.”
Being “mentally strong” during a scoring slump doesn’t seem like an issue for a team captain, a former team captain, and a player who has won two Stanley Cups.
“I think we’re starting to get a little more chemistry,” Richards said. “The first couple games maybe we were almost just throwing the puck away, looking for people to be in different spots that they weren’t [in]. The first couple games we chased the puck a lot, just giving pucks away and not having that chemistry, and I think last game we made more plays. We had some scoring chances.”
Lines are rarely permanent, however, and while there were positive omens in Monday’s loss, there’s still the need to snap out of a midseason scoring malaise. One game won’t serve as the cure-all for the lack of “bearing down,” the term we’ve heard creep into locker room vernacular as a synonym for squandered scoring opportunities.
Player movement will also take place, and potential reinforcements to the team’s top two lines could also raise the team’s offensive ceiling.
But for a storyline heading into Thursday’s game against Columbus and into the league’s Olympic shutdown, consider whether the players relied upon to create offense are finding a firmer and more comfortable footing.
“Some lines form instant chemistry, and some lines have to work at it and talk through it,” Richards said. “It takes a couple games.”