The Los Angeles Kings currently sit second overall in the Western Conference and have just one regulation-time loss in their past 10 games. So as the Maple Leafs were gearing up to host L.A. on Saturday at Air Canada Centre, they had no illusions as to the challenge that lay ahead.
“To me they're a good, good hockey club who is organized, who is built right, they've been doing it for a long time now for 10 years,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after the morning skate. “They look like a real team. It should be a lot of fun for us and a great opportunity.”
“They’re getting some results this year and they have in the past, so they’re a team that’s going to play the same way pretty much every night,” added winger Joffey Lupul. “They’ve got a great goalie, two great players in (center Anze) Kopitar and (defenseman Drew) Doughty, so the team kind of starts there. But they’ve had the same identity for years, so we know what we’re going to get tonight.”
Toronto has at least a point in its past four games, but in a 5-4 overtime loss Thursday to San Jose, the Buds came out of the gate in the first period very slowly, digging themselves a two-goal deficit before roaring back with four straight goals. With star goalie Jonathan Quick playing between the pipes for L.A., Leafs players know a strong start against the Kings is a must.
“We were sleeping (in the first period against the Sharks),” said winger P-A Parenteau. “It’s hard to explain why that happens sometimes, but you can’t do that against good teams. We were lucky we got back in the game against San Jose, but we can’t do that again tonight.”
“We talked about that yesterday in practice and touched on it a little bit today as well,” Lupul said of the slow start. “It’s tough to fall behind and come back. As well as we’ve been playing after the first, you’re putting yourself at a big disadvantage. Hopefully we can come out today and get some momentum early.”
As Lupul noted, one of the Kings’ most dangerous weapons is Doughty, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate who has a sky-high panic threshold with or without the puck and rarely makes mistakes. Even Doughty’s opponents have to admit what an incredible talent he is.
“He's a really, really, really good player,” Babcock said. “I love Doughts. He's a good kid, he knows how to play right and the bigger the game, the better he plays. He can stickhandle in a phone booth, he can shoot it, he's got the big butt there and doesn't mind drilling you the odd time. He's a real hockey player.”
“The best players in the league, that’s how they play – they show more patience with the puck than other guys,” added Parenteau. “That’s how you’re successful – you make plays and have confidence, and I think Doughty’s the best example of that. He does have a ton of skills, but he knows how to use them.”
Arguably the biggest test Saturday for the Leafs will be solving Quick. The 29-year-old has earned his reputation as one of the NHL’s top netminders – especially in high-pressure scenarios – and his relentless efforts to secure the puck force opponents to be at their best. The Buds know they can’t hope for any lucky-bounce goals when they square off against him.
“He just makes the big play when called upon,” Lupul said of Quick. “You might get one softie on him here or there, but when the game’s on the line, he’s probably the best in the league in making the big save. And he doesn’t give up on pucks, either. He battles right to the end. He’s a focus of ours tonight, but he’s got the track record of making big saves in big situations.”
“We’re going to have to crowd the net, make it harder on him early,” Parenteau said. “It’s a little bit of a cliche, but I think it’s the case when you play guys like that who battle so hard and have such good reflexes. We have to go after him tonight and match his intensity for sure.”