Los Angeles Kings' 5 Biggest Concerns in Round 3 vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Though the Los Angeles Kings looked worlds better—and healthier—during Sunday afternoon’s 3-1 loss than they did in last year’s Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, there are still kinks to be ironed out before L.A. can truly challenge a team that has had its number of late.
Chicago eliminated the Kings in five games in 2013 and swept this season’s three-game regular-season series between the clubs.
This is no patch of bad luck. The ‘Hawks understand how to exploit L.A.’s weaknesses and have done so repeatedly in the past couple of years.
Darryl Sutter’s men have shown no quit in the 2013-14 postseason, losing three straight games in a series twice and somehow managing to emerge victorious from those matchups in the end.
However, the Blackhawks are defending champions because they also know how to win. They aren’t likely to let a big, early series lead slip—no matter how resilient L.A. is.
As such, the Kings need to put their best foot forward in Game 2, covering up the following foibles in short order before they dig themselves too deep a hole to recover from.
These concerns range from team issues to specific individuals who may be targeted by Chicago in the series. Also, they’ve been compiled strictly with the ‘Hawks’ strengths in mind and are ordered from lowest to highest potential impact on the outcome of the series.
Sheltering the 2nd Line
There’s no debating the offensive spark Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli offer the Kings every time they take the ice.
Conversely, there’s little question this line is quite vulnerable defensively.
They don’t pass the eye test either, frequently blowing assignments in the defensive zone or coughing the puck up in the neutral zone for a rush opportunity against. Pearson does reasonably well as a two-way presence, but Toffoli and Carter are far less effective when it comes to grunt work and positioning.
Giving this unit its minutes while keeping matchups in mind will be a tough task for head coach Darryl Sutter, but it’s one he must take on for the Kings to succeed.
Carter, Toffoli and Pearson should see as much of Chicago's third pairing (Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival) and Marcus Kruger or Peter Regin’s line as possible.
Leddy and Rozsival are far worse in all three zones than Chicago's top two pairs (Duncan Keith with Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya with Niklas Hjalmarsson), whereas Kruger and Regin's lines aren't as likely to burn Carter, Toffoli and Pearson as the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lines are.
The second unit dealing with Keith’s brilliant stretch passes and the counterattacking ability of Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp is a terrifying scenario from a Kings perspective.
Dictating matchups will be difficult on the road in Game 2, but the Kings simply cannot afford to have Carter facing Kane regularly—Toews will likely square off with Anze Kopitar for most of the game, forcing the Kings to find offense elsewhere.
As a result, Sutter should avoid using this line on faceoffs in the defensive zone, only icing it in favorable situations such as offensive-zone draws or on-the-fly changes.
Once L.A. returns home for Games 3 and 4, the team can further emphasize ideal looks, giving the second line its best odds of both producing offense and surviving on defense.
Handled incorrectly, this unit could shift from spark plug to millstone.
Since the Blackhawks are already a daunting opponent at even strength, granting them power plays is ill-advised.
Chicago currently ranks eighth in the league in playoff power-play percentage. While the team’s man advantage isn’t unstoppable, it can deliver timely goals through Toews, Kane, Keith and company.
In Game 1, the Kings proved they could hang with the ‘Hawks at five-on-five, comfortably winning the possession battle and turning that into a number of solid scoring opportunities.
If they can maintain that trend, they’ll be in business. If they can’t stay out of the box, they’ll find themselves struggling to keep pace with a Chicago squad that doesn’t require many opportunities to make you pay.
Discipline was a factor in Game 1, with Kings blueliner Alec Martinez taking a silly penalty in the first period that led to a Brandon Saad goal.
With Willie Mitchell and Brandon Bollig jostling after the whistle, Martinez skated over and lightly shoved the latter player to the ice. It was without question a soft call—and similar action at the other end went without infraction—but Martinez cannot put himself in that situation.
The Kings had weathered the storm at that point in the game and appeared to be gathering a head of steam. Allowing a power-play goal deflated the club, which didn't truly seize control of the game until the second frame.
Playing even-strength hockey is simply too important to the Kings for their players to commit blunders of this sort. Hauling down an opponent who has a great scoring chance is acceptable. Mental mistakes are not.
L.A. must force Chicago to earn its production.
Penalties aren’t entirely avoidable, so when they are taken, L.A. must fare better on the penalty kill.
The Kings are presently surviving on a pedestrian 82.8 percent of short-handed situations, which is considerably worse than the 87.7 and 92.1 marks they managed in the 2013 and 2012 playoffs, respectively. That figure has to improve for L.A. to stand a chance against Chicago.
Now, the key to the ‘Hawks’ power play is the point men, as Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook will not hesitate to let shots fly through traffic for screen, deflection and rebound opportunities.
Therefore, the Kings must either close gaps at the point or hunker down with their shot-blocking.
The latter option isn’t ideal, as L.A. hasn’t been adept in that area in ages. As such, the penalty-killers need to pressure Keith, Sharp and Seabrook, funneling play toward the periphery and ensuring to close off the middle of the ice.
Chicago is a very skilled team that can burn you with even a momentary lapse in positioning or focus. Stickwork and an understanding of angles will be paramount.
Mitchell returned in Game 1, and though he’s a shell of his former self at five-on-five, he’s still solid on the penalty kill, utilizing his reach and smarts to deny shooting/passing lanes.
Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards, who have been on the ice for a total of three power-play goals against in the playoffs, should also be leaned on heavily in this series.
While Kopitar is an elite two-way center at even strength, he’s significantly less effective on the penalty kill. He’s already been on the ice for five power-play goals against in the playoffs, and both his postseason and regular-season plus/minus per 60 short-handed minutes are well below those of Stoll and Richards.
He’s simply too safe, which is a great asset at five-on-five but a real issue when power plays afford teams that much more room to work with. He makes life too easy on the opposition.
Stoll’s motor allows him to pressure point men without straying too far from his lanes, while Richards’ savvy and active stick allow him to anticipate decisions and seal off certain areas of the ice. Moreover, they're both very good at denying entry into the offensive zone.
Sutter has to rely on these two as well as Drew Doughty and Mitchell on the penalty kill.
With the right personnel and approach to stifling Chicago’s power play, L.A. can limit the effect of special teams and grind away at even strength, where it has its best chance of success.
Possession Without Production
The Kings only managed 11 goals in last year’s five-game WCF.
Thankfully, the 2014 Kings are significantly stronger than the 2013 iteration, boasting more speed—thanks to Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik—as well as a shorter list of injured players (Robyn Regehr in 2014 compared to Doughty, Richards, Stoll, Mitchell, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Matt Greene in 2013).
Game 1 on Sunday reflected that, as L.A. was much more competitive. In fact, the Kings carried the bulk of even-strength play, controlling 57.1 percent of five-on-five shot attempts and creating a slew of quality scoring opportunities.
That represents a substantial jump from the team's third-round series in 2013, when L.A. only mustered a 49.1 five-on-five Corsi percentage.
Richards was especially active as a playmaker in Sunday’s series opener, deftly tipping a pass to Williams for a two-on-one with Kyle Clifford and springing Tyler Toffoli for a breakaway in the third period.
Alas, Toffoli hit the post after deking out Corey Crawford.
All that puck possession amounted to a lone goal and a 3-1 loss on Sunday.
Since Chicago is as opportunistic a team as there is in the NHL, failing to capitalize on chances comes back to bite you—and against the Blackhawks, it’s often in an awful hurry.
The Kings deserved to win Game 1, but there are no moral victories in the playoffs. They need to bear down on their shots and find a way to break through.
Gaborik has to threaten with his wrister, Anze Kopitar has to impose his will on smaller players, Carter and Pearson need to continue using their pace to make Chicago’s blue line uncomfortable, Richards and Williams need to harness their craftiness and clutch genes to produce goals, and the defense has to get its shots through traffic.
Chicago blocked 25 shots on Sunday. Turning those into actual shots on target with bodies in front would do wonders for L.A.
Sutter’s men probably won’t best Joel Quenneville’s in a contest of pretty goals. As was the case in the San Jose series, it’s time for the Kings to turn this battle into a war in front of the opposing netminder.
Touching on both possession and Chicago’s quick-strike ability, the Kings must be mindful of their puck management when facing a club as potent as the Blackhawks.
In particular, their defensemen have to be tidier with the puck on their stick, improving their decisions and tightening their execution. Not only would this allow the team to push the ‘Hawks on their heels, it would prevent them from piling on any pressure in L.A.’s end.
In Game 1, L.A. failed to send the puck beyond its blue line on the first penalty kill of the contest, directly resulting in a Saad marker.
Keith's game-winner also originated from a Kings turnover in the neutral zone, granting the Blackhawks easy possession and entry into the offensive zone before a lucky deflection charted a path by Jonathan Quick.
It’s one thing for Chicago’s great talent to simply overwhelm opponents. It’s a whole other can of worms when a squad just hands the puck back to the ‘Hawks, playing right into their brand of instant offense.
They're capable of turning giveaways into goals as quickly as any club in the world, whether it's through torrid counterattacks or breakaways courtesy of long-bomb stretch passes.
Naturally, then, the key is to remain on the right side of the puck and take care of it, making accurate passes when they're available. When they're not, L.A. must at least place the puck out of harm's way, denying Chicago the possibility to fly up the ice for a rush opportunity.
While Jeff Schultz was horrible on Sunday, Slava Voynov, Jake Muzzin and Martinez also struggled mightily with their passing, routinely turning pucks over down low and on the breakout.
L.A. absolutely cannot tender these chances to this particular opponent.
Chicago capitalized in Game 1. Twice. The team's offensive appetite is voracious, and it pounces on mistakes like sharks with a whiff of blood in the water. Honestly, that may be the club's defining attribute: a killer instinct.
If the Kings can clean up their play with the puck and force the Blackhawks to work for their breaks, they’ll be one step closer to unseating them as Western Conference champions.