5 Adjustments Los Angeles Kings Must Make vs. San Jose Sharks in Round 1
Following a pair of brutal losses in San Jose, the Los Angeles Kings need to brush off the past two outings, make a few adjustments and return to their game in order to give the Sharks a run for their money.
Granted, allowing 13 goals in two contests—including a baffling seven unanswered markers in Game 2—isn’t easy to forget for a defense-first squad.
Nevertheless, if L.A. simply views losses as losses regardless of context, then the team finds itself in the same situation as in 2013. Last season, the Kings rallied back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate the St. Louis Blues.
Such a comeback is possible against the Sharks as well. After all, San Jose holding serve at home was almost to be expected, as it’s a dominant team at the SAP Center. The Kings are also solid at Staples Center—especially when facing the Sharks.
As LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen notes, the home team’s record is 22-1-1 in the past 24 games between these two rivals.
This series will have a heartbeat until the Kings lose on their ice.
With that said, they won't win this series if they can't win in San Jose, so they must find a way to generate momentum that can be carried into hostile territory.
Ramping up their intensity and regaining their composure are obvious keys, but they’re not easy changes to implement on a short-term basis. Besides, only the individual players themselves are in control of such aspects of the game.
Here are tweaks that L.A.’s coaching staff and the club as a whole can instantly bring to the table by design.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.
Smarter Puck Management
As the league’s top puck-possession team—leading the league in Corsi and Fenwick percentage in the regular season—the Kings are not only terrific at winning battles, but they take care of the biscuit when they own it.
Those significant downturns indicate that the Kings have not been playing their game. After falling behind in both contests, they ditched smart puck management for sloppy, hopeless plays.
These miscues led to transition chances for the Sharks. Even a cursory glance at the highlights will reveal that the bulk of San Jose’s production has come on the rush.
The Kings’ unwitting generosity has amounted to found money for San Jose. It hasn’t even needed to depend on its offensive stars for production, finding goals from unlikely sources such as bottom-sixers Raffi Torres and Mike Brown as well blueliners Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun.
Over these two games, the Sharks’ even-strength shooting percentage is a remarkable 18.2, which comfortably leads the league and towers over the 7.4 percent mark they registered in the regular season.
This otherworldly efficiency suggests that their shots are coming from far more dangerous areas than the usual flow of the game should provide—especially against the Kings.
L.A. defenseman Drew Doughty highlighted the issue when speaking with reporters on Tuesday morning. "When you turn a puck over guys are changing and guys don’t have good gaps and so many different things go wrong," he said.
San Jose hasn’t had to contend with playoff hockey yet in this series, instead being tendered easy possession and the space to launch a track meet it will win every time based on its advantage in pure talent.
If L.A. can cut down on its unforced turnovers and reclaim the upper hand in possession, it’ll start to impose its tempo and will on San Jose.
As I mentioned last week, the Sharks thrive when they attack with pace. One of the critical aspects of this series for the Kings is their ability to slow the game down and dictate the flow of traffic.
Thus far, San Jose has avoided traffic altogether, simply blowing by L.A. for gifted rush chance upon gifted rush chance.
Tightening up their decision-making with the puck would allow the Kings to tighten up this series in a hurry.
Cleaner Line Changes
Working in tandem with stronger puck management is the timing of line changes. In the first two games, the Sharks were spotted a couple of goals from ill-advised changes that left Jonathan Quick to fend for himself against San Jose's high-octane attack.
Stifling the likes of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl is difficult enough in and of itself.
Offering San Jose transition opportunities on a silver platter is simply asking for trouble.
Remedying this is a matter of synchronization. Since changes should be occurring when L.A. is either safely in possession or after a dump-in, whoever has the puck must send it deep enough into Sharks territory for a change to be completed. That’s paramount.
Meanwhile, the players who are set to change must keep an eye on the play and ensure that they can reach their bench without putting teammates in compromising situations.
The rest of the Kings should be communicating at all times, letting their teammates know if a change is a possibility.
The simple matter of changing lines tidily would have prevented back-breaking goals from Hertl and Pavelski (video above). This is hockey at its most basic, but given the team's errors in the first couple of playoff games, it bears repeating.
L.A. must force San Jose to earn its chances.
Mike Richards and Jeff Carter Centering Their Own Units
Coming into the series, one of the most intriguing storylines was how hulking playmaker Joe Thornton would fare against the much smaller Mike Richards.
Though the possession battle has unsurprisingly been titled in Thornton’s favor, Richards has once again contained San Jose’s biggest threat, limiting him to a mere single even-strength point through two games—keep in mind that the Sharks have tallied an extraordinary 10 five-on-five goals in that span.
In last year’s Western Conference semifinal, Richards held Thornton to four points in seven games while L.A.’s gritty two-way pivot tied for the series lead in points (five) and plus/minus (plus-three).
He was a huge reason why his team progressed to the third round and, though quiet offensively, he hasn’t been the problem thus far either.
With that said, the Kings should place him lower in the depth chart. Richards’ chemistry with Jeff Carter is nonexistent at this point, and more importantly, L.A.’s bottom six has been eaten alive by San Jose’s in the first two games.
Jarret Stoll and Kyle Clifford have struggled to start the series. The lower lines are in desperate need of a leader with experience and guts, and that describes Richards to a T.
Moreover, Richards would see more of the puck on the third unit, as he would be the key figure through which play is driven. With Carter, they have to share possession, which is already modest due to the fact that the Kings have trouble clearing the zone with a center (Carter) playing wing.
Placing both former Philadelphia Flyers in the center spot would create a greater sense of comfort and ideally free Carter from the Thornton matchup.
A lighter defensive burden would allow No. 77 to focus more of his attention on offense, which his team sorely lacks at present.
In addition to that wrinkle, head coach Darryl Sutter must feed Richards minutes. He boasts an impressive postseason resume and has a history of stepping up when it counts. In Games 1 and 2, he only saw 12 and 16 minutes of ice time, respectively.
That’s not nearly enough for a player who is counted upon to lead the charge.
Send him out there early and often (18-19 minutes per game) and let him find his rhythm on a line with gritty, hard workers who want to see the puck on his stick—Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, Tanner Pearson, maybe even Dustin Brown as a hit-or-miss option.
If he isn’t given the opportunity, the Kings’ season will end in the first round.
Sutter should couple the lineup alteration listed in the previous slide with an emphasis on stability. In his time with the Kings, he has juggled the roster like nobody’s business, continually shuffling forward units and preventing his men from developing chemistry.
Not every trio will hit the ground running, but if you don’t afford players the time to gel, they never will.
In Game 2, the Kings bench boss made a smart move in scratching Jordan Nolan while then committing the mistake of dressing seven blueliners. The result was a forward lineup that seemed to swap faces with every shift.
L.A. must draw up its units and practice with them diligently until there’s an on-ice understanding to work with. Players require time to pick up on where teammates like to position themselves and how they see the game.
During contests, Sutter must stick with his lines for the team to stand a chance. Saddling key players with ever-changing complements is sure to mitigate any head of steam the Kings muster.
Since the Sharks are rolling at the moment, the worst thing Sutter can do is get in the way of his squad. Set the lineup and deploy it in consistent fashion.
Increase the Involvement of Defensemen on Offense
The Kings offense isn’t been blessed with great firepower.
Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Justin Williams, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown are certainly very good players, but they aren’t likely to overwhelm opponents with sheer attacking proficiency.
With that said, the team’s forward group is terrific in the possession game. The aim, then, is to translate this time with the puck into production. Since L.A.’s makeup is predicated more on sandpaper than skill, it should look for greasy goals.
It shouldn’t merely stumble upon them, it should game-plan in such a way to generate them.
As such, ensuring that the point men get touches is crucial. Even with this disaster of a start, Kings defensemen Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov have gotten on the board, while Drew Doughty has dazzled in the offensive zone.
The Sharks have generally kept the Kings’ top forwards muzzled to this point, but they’ve struggled when the blueliners have been activated.
Offense from the back end doesn’t necessarily come in the form of end-to-end rushes. The Kings’ rearguards should simply keep an eye on opportunities to pinch in the offensive zone in order to extend shifts on the attack.
Also, bothering Antti Niemi with traffic is of the utmost importance. Once his line of sight is disrupted, L.A.’s point men must send pucks in his direction, allowing teammates to battle for screens, deflections and rebounds.
Moreover, getting the defensemen engaged on offense will open up room for the forwards lower in the formation, as San Jose will be forced to respect the point men and move into their shooting lanes. An extra fraction of a second is an eternity in the offensive zone, and a dangerous blue line would provide the Kings with that leeway up front.
The Kings will not beat the Sharks with firewagon hockey. Their respective rosters won’t allow it.
They need the pond hockey we’ve seen in the first two games to slow down and degenerate into a street fight in front of San Jose’s goal. This series needs to become a battle of will over skill.