5 Reasons Why the Los Angeles Kings Should Be Feared in 2013-14 Playoffs
The Los Angeles Kings will likely face the divisional rival San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2013-14 playoffs. Having met last year in the Western Conference semifinals, the two Californian clubs match up well and are familiar with each other in a postseason setting.
Both are deep, stellar in net and rooted in puck possession.
It should be another great battle, as the Kings and Sharks duked it out over seven games in 2013 before L.A. ultimately prevailed.
Regardless of their opponent—there’s still a slim chance that the Sharks will win the Pacific Division and avoid the Kings in the quarterfinals—Darryl Sutter’s men are not a team to be taken lightly.
Here are five reasons why that is.
Steadfast Puck Possession
To a man, the Kings bought into Sutter’s system when he arrived in 2011-12. This has yielded the most successful two-season stretch in franchise history.
One of the keys to their purple patch has been an unflinching commitment to puck possession.
There's a reason L.A.'s defense is ranked first in the league, and it's not the team's defensive personnel, which is just above average on a good day. The Kings own the puck.
Is there any discrepancy between home and away performance? Hardly. The Kings are first in Corsi percentage at home and second on the road in 2013-14. In 40 games at Staples Center, they’ve scored 61 goals and allowed 49 at even strength. Over 39 games in hostile territory, they’ve potted 61 markers and conceded 48 at five-on-five.
This mirror image regardless of the environment bodes well for an L.A. team that will not boast home-ice advantage in the West.
In 2012, the eighth-seeded Kings only lost one of their 11 road games on the way to their first and only Stanley Cup. The core of that club remains intact.
Sutter’s men are battle-tested. They’ve proven they can play in any rink and any situation.
Though general manager Dean Lombardi has built a club that can withstand the grind of the regular season, L.A. also features a few players who are seemingly made for the heat of playoff battle.
Drew Doughty, Mike Richards and Jonathan Quick may only put forth ordinary seasons these days, but their postseason showings have been extraordinary of late.
Evidenced by two Olympic gold medals and a Conn Smythe-worthy playoff in 2012, Doughty is at his best in, well, best-on-best competition. He simply relishes the big stage, tightening his shutdown defense, ramping up his physicality and becoming even more dynamic with the puck.
Speaking with reporters during the Kings’ Cup run two years ago, fellow blueliner Willie Mitchell detailed Doughty’s knack for stepping up when it counts.
“He’s a bright-lights player. Always has been. When the game’s on the line, he likes that stage and he wants to be the guy who makes the difference. You don’t grow into that, I don’t think. It’s either in you or not in you,” he said.
Meanwhile, Richards is the consummate “flip the switch” three-zone pivot. Since the 2009-10 campaign, his regular-season points-per-game average is 0.67 (245 points in 364 games). Over that same span, his playoff PPG is 0.83 (57 points in 69 games).
His 57 points in that time frame rank third in the entire NHL...and he's a two-way forward.
He hounds the puck with great ferocity and delivers in the clutch, willing his team past the opposition like few can. He may not be the steady regular-season contributor that he was in Philadelphia anymore, but there isn’t a single NHL team that would willingly face the Kings with “playoff Richards” in the fold.
Then there’s Quick, who was named playoff MVP in 2012 and has appeared unbeatable to everyone but the Chicago Blackhawks in the past two playoff campaigns.
Blessed with remarkable flexibility and compete level, Quick battles harder than any netminder in the league and saves—pun fully intended—his best for the most important moments.
In addition to steady, productive players such as Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, the Kings are fortunate enough to employ some of the sport’s truest gamers. In a tight series, they can make all the difference.
Kopitar and Brown Looking for Redemption
Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown were terrible in the 2013 playoffs. Just awful.
After tallying respective averages of 0.89 and 0.63 points per game in the regular season, they stumbled to abysmal 0.50 and 0.22 figures in the postseason.
From a possession standpoint, Kopitar and Brown’s on-ice Corsi (shot attempt differential per 60 minutes) fell off a cliff from 25.43 and 22.54 to minus-2.42 and minus-2.38.
They didn’t control shot attempts or produce goals. They didn’t do much of anything, really.
Though some might feel that Brown’s knee injury is worth mentioning, that was only sustained toward the end of the second round.
Besides, if we generously remove the six post-injury games from the picture—there’s no reason to do so, as countless players fight through injuries when the Stanley Cup is on the line—he still managed a deplorable four points in 12 contests. A PPG of 0.33 doesn’t exactly look that much better.
Even with their health issues—Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams, Matt Greene, Mitchell, Doughty and Richards were hurt to varying degrees—the Kings could well have reached the Stanley Cup Final again last season had Kopitar and Brown shown up.
They'll surely be looking to atone for this letdown. Kopitar has enjoyed a tremendous back half of the regular season, while Brown has found new life on Stoll's wing.
Complacency should be a real worry for teams that have recently won championships, but one gets the sense that these Kings aren’t lacking any motivation.
With Kopitar and Brown sporting chips on their shoulders while receiving support from Doughty, Richards, Carter, Quick and Marian Gaborik, this squad could be the Western Conference’s worst nightmare.
With Gaborik on the roster, the Kings are now more balanced and potent up front.
They can send out three or four lines—depending on where Richards is slotted—that can defend, score, skate and take the body.
This has resulted in a much better margin of victory. Prior to the March 5 deadline, the Kings averaged 2.41 goals for and 2.13 goals against per game (152 GF and 134 GA in 63 games). Since the deal, they’ve scored 2.81 while conceding 2.00 per contest (45 GF and 32 GA in 16 games).
Brown has been relegated to bottom-six duty, pairing up with Stoll and Dwight King to form a pesky and aggressive group with some offensive upside. That kind of experience could overwhelm the opposition’s lower lines in crunch time.
Elsewhere, Richards and Carter might reunite on the second line. They’ve been effective there in the two previous postseasons. However, Sutter has recently discovered that splitting them up can also benefit his club.
That’s a lot of flexibility to work with.
Richards could form a dynamite fourth line with Trevor Lewis or he could take the ice with Carter, forcing the opposition to account for two stars on the same line—thereby freeing up Kopitar and his linemates to some extent.
Finally, there’s the revamped top unit. Kopitar has never been provided with the type of finishing ability and raw talent that Gaborik brings to the table, and it shows. The skill the newcomer plays the game with is contagious, as Kopitar has seen his confidence soar of late, finally attacking the middle of ice with seam passes and powerful drives to the goalmouth area.
The hulking two-way center may be playing the very best hockey of his career at the moment.
Throw in a puck-possession soldier like Williams and you’ve got a truly dominant line that can match up with any group in the league.
Moreover, if you add that all up, you’ve got a forward corps capable of matching up with that of any team in the league.
New-Look Power Play Paying Dividends
Nevertheless, L.A. has won more series in that time than any team in the world.
Now imagine a squad icing that same core, but with an effective man advantage in tow. Yikes.
As I wrote last week, L.A.'s PP has both looked and performed better since the beginning of March. Gaborik’s arrival has sparked the improvement, infusing the club with a breath of confidence while providing the likes of Kopitar and Doughty with more space by virtue of merely being on the ice.
Alec Martinez has also been deployed on the top unit in the past few games, demonstrating the benefits of simple, aggressive decisions on the PP. He attempts more shots in these situations than any King.
The success of the first group pushes Richards down to the second as well, which constitutes a solid fallback option for when the top unit doesn’t get the job done.
Given how much the Kings control play at even strength—leading the league in Corsi percentage—tacking on the threat of a well-oiled PP is terrifying for opponents.