How the Los Angeles Kings Are Starting to Play Like Champions Once Again
The Los Angeles Kings defeated the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinals series on Tuesday with the kind of defensive performance that helped them win the Stanley Cup last season.
The team's success begins and ends with the play of superstar goaltender Jonathan Quick, who is playing his best hockey of the year after a lackluster regular season. The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner was the first star of Tuesday's game, stopping all 35 of the shots he faced to earn his second shutout of the playoffs.
When the Sharks started to create more offensive-zone pressure in the third period and fired 16 shots at Quick, the Kings' goalie stood tall and made all the important saves to prevent his team's lead from slipping away.
With another victory under his belt, Quick is now 5-1-1 in the playoffs with a 1.36 GAA and a .953 save percentage, which are better than his numbers from last year's championship run.
There is no better playoff goaltender than Quick right now, and with teams unable to figure out a way to beat him consistently, Los Angeles has a very real chance of becoming the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Quick is not only a "hot goaltender," he's also one that's playing with a ton of confidence as a former champion. When he's on top of his game, the Kings are nearly unbeatable, and his impressive play in net gives his teammates more freedom to take chances offensively, because he will bail them out more often than not if defensive breakdowns occur.
Speaking of Quick's teammates, several of them have raised their games since the postseason started.
One of those players is No. 1 defenseman Drew Doughty, who has a reputation as a big-game player. The 23-year-old superstar has tallied three points in seven games, but his play in the defensive zone has been fantastic. He ranks first among all Kings blueliners in hits (19), second in blocked shots (12) and third in short-handed time on ice per game (2:39).
Doughty was on the ice for 22 of Sharks captain Joe Thornton's 25 shifts in Game 1, and the Kings' star's quality defense and physical play resulted in the San Jose center failing to tally a single point after dominating the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
In the absence of veteran defensemen Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene (both are battling injuries), Slava Voynov and rookie Jake Muzzin have given the Kings the needed amount of blue-line depth to shut down the deepest teams in the West. Despite their inexperience in the playoffs, these two defensemen show a tremendous amount of poise with the puck and make the smart plays at both ends of the ice.
Voynov was the Kings' best skater on Tuesday, with a goal, an assist, two blocked shots and a team-leading 23:54 of ice time. He now has three game-winning goals in the playoffs.
Another reason for the Kings' recent success has been their phenomenal penalty killing. Los Angeles ranks fourth among playoff teams with an 88.2-percent success rate on the penalty kill, and the team has not allowed a power-play goal since Game 1 of the first round.
From an offensive standpoint, the Kings haven't scored a lot of goals, but they are finishing games strongly. Five of their 14 goals have been scored in the third period or overtime, and the blue line is giving the team some much-needed scoring with 14 points through seven games.
Head coach Darryl Sutter would probably want his team to find the back of the net more consistently, but this team is very comfortable in close games (4-1-1 in games decided by one goal in the playoffs), especially when Quick is playing at an elite level.
When the Kings defend like they did in Game 1 against the Sharks and Quick is outstanding, this team is incredibly tough to defeat four times in a seven-game series.
Will the Kings repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
No other team in the league has the combination of a talented and deep blue line, a group of forwards with a solid two-way game, a goaltender capable of dominating a series by himself and a ton of Stanley Cup-winning experience.
As a team that is getting timely scoring, great defensive play in all three zones and spectacular goaltending on a nightly basis, the Kings are starting to reach the level they did during last year's Stanley Cup run with five straight wins.
This is a team that has very few weaknesses and is now getting hot at the right time of the year with a growing level of confidence.
Los Angeles has a great chance to make back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
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