The Los Angeles Kings were dreadful to start the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Final. As it turns out, that may have been the ideal scenario for head coach Darryl Sutter’s men.
After rallying back from a 2-0 deficit to claim a 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers, the Kings won’t just enter Saturday’s tilt in the driver’s seat of the series—they’ll do so with a rude awakening looming over their heads.
In the opening two frames, New York was all over L.A. thanks to its sheer pace, flying around the ice to create turnovers and generate scoring opportunities. If not for Rick Nash’s complete and utter ineptitude on the rush, Game 1 could have easily gone to the Blueshirts.
Unfortunately for Alain Vigneault and company, what-ifs hold very little water in the playoffs.
The Kings recovered from their blunders in emphatic fashion and will surely be much sharper in Game 2. With a victory in hand and the realization that it must play considerably better moving forward, the team enjoyed a genuine win-win performance on Wednesday.
Here’s why L.A. will only improve as the series progresses.
Respect for New York's Speed
While the Kings may have known that the Rangers are really fast coming into the SCF, they had to experience this blazing speed firsthand in order to make the necessary adjustments.
Following a deplorable first period, the Kings tightened up their puck management, ultimately putting the clamps on New York to the tune of a 20-3 shot advantage in the third frame.
Sure, Sutter’s squad paid for this lesson with a pair of breakaway goals against, but uncovering the right approach to countering the Rangers’ pace this early bodes well for L.A.
On Carl Hagelin’s goal, Brian Boyle wins a battle for the puck and saucers it to an open area. With Drew Doughty looking to hold the blue line on the right side, Slava Voynov is caught in no man’s land as Hagelin develops a head of steam. Voynov has allowed too much gap to close in time and isn’t far back enough to nullify the ensuing rush.
Proving his status as one of the fastest players on earth, Hagelin blows by Voynov in an embarrassing display that culminates with the slumping 24-year-old kicking the puck into his own net:
If L.A. didn’t respect the Rangers’ tempo before, it certainly will now.
Justin Williams suggested as much when addressing reporters following the game:
We certainly don’t want to make a habit out of this. That is a world-class team up there with world-class offense. ... A lot of things [went] awry during the game. We certainly have to clean that up. We certainly weren't ready for the speed of their wingers, I don't think.
The Kings have had a taste of New York’s skating ability and will look to shut it down by governing play in the neutral zone. This means limiting turnovers, managing the puck intelligently and backchecking quickly to smother any signs of life for the Rangers.
Coughing the puck up recklessly, as Kyle Clifford does below, will not be tolerated:
Vigneault’s club isn’t one that will overwhelm in possession or with raw talent. It lives and dies on counterattacks and speed-based rushes.
Consequently, L.A. will try to slow the Rangers down by forcing them to chip pucks in and work for their chances. The Kings should have the horses to contain New York in a more cycle-oriented affair.
Another facet of this matchup that should be affected by Wednesday’s showing is the team’s forward lines.
Once again, Mike Richards thrived after leaving Trevor Lewis’ unit for greener pastures by Williams’ side. With Lewis, Richards didn’t generate much and was minus-one. Following the swap, Richards and Williams combined for one goal, two assists and a plus-three rating.
The savvy veterans also worked some magic on the overtime winner.
With rookie Tanner Pearson on the forecheck, Rangers blueliner Dan Girardi stumbles and thus looks for a safe play to bail himself out. Richards drifts toward L.A.’s bench for a change but cleverly lingers for a half-second to see if anything worthwhile develops.
Believing the space has been vacated, Girardi sends the puck in that direction. To his dismay, Richards intercepts the pass and springs Williams, who roofs a wrister by Henrik Lundqvist to seal the deal:
Throughout the entire night, the 29-year-old made small, crafty plays that contribute to team success. Sutter ensured that they didn’t go to waste by pairing him with Williams for 5.8 of his 11.2 even-strength minutes.
The revised line didn’t offer a flawless performance, but the difference in caliber between Richards-Lewis and Richards-Williams was certainly noticeable.
Richards controlled 60.7 percent of five-on-five shot attempts and was on the ice for two Kings goals, also providing the net-front presence on Doughty’s phenomenal effort:
Sutter may be a tad stubborn, but the chemistry between Richards and Williams—as well as the lack thereof between Richards and Lewis—should be too obvious to ignore.
Arming themselves with three lines fully capable of producing in the third period, the Kings were simply too much for the Rangers to handle down the stretch.
Atypical Outing by Doughty
Doughty looked more like P.K. Subban than his usual self on Wednesday, taking all manner of needless gambles when simpler options were available.
The result was a flashy, inconsistent and ugly outing by the league’s best big-game defenseman. Producing a highlight-reel marker was offset by a ridiculous toe drag in the first period that led to Benoit Pouliot’s ice-breaker:
Doughty just can’t afford such a high-risk maneuver there. A dump into the corner, a quick shot, anything would have been preferable to that poor decision.
He succumbed to the urge to overdo it again in overtime, when the puck was poked off his stick during a spin move in the neutral zone. Derek Stepan was granted a shot that wasn’t deserved in the least:
These Kings don’t run on style points. They’re fueled by a whatever-it-takes-to-win attitude.
Luckily for—and much like—them, Doughty is aware of this and will only get better from here.
"Yeah, it’s a bad turnover. I wasn’t happy with myself," he told reporters about the Pouliot breakaway. "I had to be a better player than I was on that play."
The 24-year-old is too poised to be committing errors of that nature. Expect him to cut down on the fancy nonsense while honing in on his puck possession in the games ahead. His five-on-five Corsi percentage in Game 1 was only 51.6, which is decidedly middling for one of the Kings’ leading lights in this respect.
For most of the playoffs, Doughty has been brilliant. Not quite 2012 great, but great all the same. He has to regain that form in a hurry to dictate the flow of the game and shore up a defensive corps that’s as porous as it’s been in three seasons.
Judging by his history in high-stakes affairs, he’ll bounce back.
Speaking with the media after the contest, Willie Mitchell neatly summed up the team’s performance: “It was not a good hockey game for us.”
That’s precisely why the Kings are such a daunting foe.
L.A. was largely awful for two periods yet still managed to gut out a victory in Game 1 to crush New York’s spirit. In the third frame, the Kings again flashed a gear that no other team has proven capable of matching, tilting the ice so severely toward the Rangers’ zone that the Blueshirts couldn’t even breathe.
Just take a gander at the game's even-strength Fenwick chart (unblocked shot attempts) for an indication of how brutally L.A. manhandled New York in the third period:
Maintaining that level of intensity and execution over a full 60 minutes is impossible, but both teams know that the Kings will be much closer to that standard moving forward than they were in Game 1.
They've caught on to the Rangers' tremendous speed, Richards will likely play with Williams to offer the team even greater scoring balance and, most vitally, Doughty will make amends for a sketchy night.
New York not only squandered its best shot at stealing home-ice advantage, but it also slapped some sense into L.A.’s players on Wednesday.
Now that the Kings have woken from their post-Western Conference Final slumber, look out.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.