EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – In-and-out isn't just the name of a burger chain that helps define Southern California culture. It also defines the struggles of the Los Angeles Kings' top forwards in the Western Conference Final.
It's been no lazy-afternoon barbecue for Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Jeff Carter through the first two games. That's because this is the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that they've dealt with a puck-moving team like the Chicago Blackhawks, whose speed and transition game leave L.A. with few secondary scoring chances.
"There's a lot of neutral zone play," Williams said. "There's a lot of in-and-outs. There's not a lot sustained pressure, and give them credit. They're a good checking team. They check you and try to get you frustrated, and in turn, that's what we do. But they've been more successful at it than we have. Do I feel we've played a better game than Game 1? Yes, but that's what losers say."
Game 3 is Tuesday at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
The Brown-Kopitar-Williams line recorded three shots on goal in Game 1 and six in Game 2. Kopitar has two goals in the playoffs and three points in the past nine games. He had two shots in Game 2, although he played five minutes on the power play.
Much of L.A.'s off day Monday was spent in the film room, and a surprisingly chatty coach Darryl Sutter fully concurred about Kopitar and Brown.
"They've struggled offensively, for sure," Sutter said. "That's not me jumping out making a statement. That is a fact. That is a statistical fact."
Kopitar has been a curious subject throughout the playoffs. His goal in Game 5 of the conference quarterfinals – his second of the postseason – briefly ended talk about a slump and speculation about injury. But it's a glaring issue again. Kopitar is also one of, if not L.A.'s top two-way forward and a viable Selke Trophy candidate in some seasons, so his worth goes beyond numbers.
But as far as scoring, he also tends to be streaky, so this could be a dry spell at the worst time.
"Yeah, I'm sure he's frustrated," Sutter said. "We've spent a lot of time together talking about stuff and working on stuff and trying to find little areas that he can do differently or be better. But I don't really lose sleep over Kopi. He's not a guy that takes shortcuts.
"It's pretty evident [what he needs to improve]. When Kopi has the puck, he's a top player in the League. When he doesn't have the puck, he's a good checker. That means he could have the puck more and that means that, quite honest, he can support the puck better and certainly who he plays with can feel privileged that they're playing with a top player and they should be doing everything they can to play with him."
Los Angeles tends to have difficulty with teams that play a strong puck possession game, and Chicago is exposing that profoundly. This is a much deeper forward unit that the Kings faced than in previous series against the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues. The Blackhawks have a 26-9 takeaway advantage through two games.
"Chicago is a very good checking team," Brown said. "They're not an overly physical team, though. And their transition game is probably one of the better transition games in the League. Making them go 200 feet for all their chances will go a long way in the outcome of the game.
"I think it's pretty fair to say, as a line, we're collectively in a slump. We looked over some video today and we know what we need to do to be better. It's getting into the offensive zone. Our spacing is pretty significant and it's hard to play, especially against a team like Chicago. They kind of have that man-on-man with an extra man in there and when you don't have the spacing right, one guy eliminates the body, the other guy is quick on the puck. Probably more important against Chicago, we need to have closer support in all three zones."
Carter did get on the scoreboard, although it ended up a meaningless goal in a 4-2 loss in Game 2. In his past nine games, Carter has more minor penalties (five) than goals (three), and one of those goals was an empty netter.
L.A. seemed to find some chemistry in Game 3 with the new line of Carter, Dustin Penner and Tyler Toffoli, which was put together after Mike Richards became unavailable with an upper-body injury.
"That was our best line," Sutter said.
As expected, Sutter did not have an update on Richards and he will likely be another game-time decision.
Los Angeles returns home with a 14-game winning streak at Staples Center. More than any time in the postseason, there is doubt about whether that can continue.
"It's not do-or-die tomorrow, but it is," Williams said. "It just needs to get done tomorrow. The confidence in our dressing room is … we've been here before. We've been a successful team before. You look around our room – there's a lot of familiar faces and confidence among one another is key, especially at this crucial point."