Eschewing the drama of Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final in favor of a steady-as-she-goes outing on Monday night, the Los Angeles Kings seized a commanding 3-0 series lead over the New York Rangers.
It certainly wasn’t thrilling and won’t generate never-say-die storylines in the press, but this was a picture-perfect road game.
Madison Square Garden was rendered lifeless, and the Rangers were left baffled as to how to defeat a Kings squad that appears capable of winning under any circumstance.
Boasting a 3-0 advantage in the third period, L.A. just hunkered down and put forth a clinic in holding a lead. Head coach Darryl Sutter rolled four forward lines in rapid succession, and the Kings played the safest brand of hockey they’ve produced this spring, content to chip pucks out of the defensive zone and regroup—daring New York to penetrate its walls.
On the handful of occasions when the Rangers did break through, Jonathan Quick stood tall, shutting the door in a fashion redolent of 2012 Quick.
In fact, the ease with which the Kings dispatched their opponents harkened back to the championship team from two years ago in a number of ways.
Though it took one game longer than anticipated, the Kings eventually ironed out the kinks to offer their bench boss an assured showing with the puck in Game 3.
Notice how the Rangers weren’t screaming up and down the ice on Monday? New York didn’t register any odd-man rushes because it wasn’t granted any. The Kings were much smarter in possession, putting the puck in the right areas to facilitate a forecheck without ever gambling on a play that wasn’t there.
Even the fourth line stuck to the game plan. In the second period, Mike Richards does a great job of tying up Derek Stepan's stick to begin the transition from defense to offense.
Kyle Clifford picks up the puck, but instead of forcing the issue with a seam pass that could send the Rangers coming back the other way with speed, he merely takes what's there: a point shot for Jake Muzzin:
While this choice may seem innocuous, it was a microcosm of the manner in which L.A. frustrated the Rangers, staying on the right side of the puck at all times to dictate tempo.
That’s closer to where the Kings should be when they’re at their best. In the 2012 Stanley Cup run, they tallied 197 giveaways in 20 games—good for an average of 9.9 per game.
As a result of L.A.’s improved puck management, there were no counterattacks for Alain Vigneault’s troops to feast on.
Since the Rangers thrive on speed, the Kings locked down the neutral zone and signaled that their foes would no longer be afforded the freedom to skate by them. If New York wished to score, it would have to go through L.A.
The Blueshirts aren’t built to bulldoze the opposition—much less a Western Conference titan—and that much was obvious with the way Game 3 unfolded.
New York severely outshot the Kings (33-15) but barely made a dent.
Without a head of steam behind them, Rangers speedsters Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello and Martin St. Louis appeared toothless, hopelessly flinging pucks at L.A.’s net. Only a couple of nights ago, they were buzzing around Quick’s cage.
Of course, Drew Doughty was at the heart of this return to form.
He didn’t pot a jaw-dropping goal, so he won’t garner the excessive praise he saw after Game 1—strangely enough, that was quite a poor showing—but he was a tremendous figure of poise on the back end, foiling one New York play after another with his positioning and superb decision-making against the forecheck.
In 26 minutes of ice time, Doughty controlled the flow of the game like no other player in the world can, squeezing the life out of the Rangers by refusing to concede a single inch. He was physical, he was elusive and he continually made the appropriate read with the puck on his stick.
Every shift was defined by a nifty pass off the boards, a well-placed dish to his center to alleviate the opposition’s pressure or a turn back to launch the breakout in a more cohesive formation.
The execution was spotless.
Sure, flashy plays are nice, but Doughty’s ability to place substance over sizzle is what makes him such a rare talent.
The rest of the Kings followed suit, forgoing ill-advised blind passes and toe drags for quick, effective plays that minimized time spent in the defensive zone.
On Jeff Carter's late first-period marker, the puck never sticks to one L.A. player for too long. Slava Voynov—who had a satisfyingly quiet showing—rockets a pass to Carter, who deftly tips the puck to Justin Williams in the neutral zone:
In a matter of seconds, the Kings are out of their end and attacking in the other direction. More importantly, they consistently keep the puck out of harm's way in the process.
From L.A.'s perspective, that was the theme of the night.
Granted, Quick’s mediocre playoffs have contributed to that ballooning average, but the club’s knack for smothering the opposition hasn’t manifested itself all that often this spring.
Rearguards Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and Voynov have each regressed dramatically whereas the forwards don’t seem quite as dependable in a three-zone capacity. Lately, the Kings have proved themselves likelier to score six unanswered goals than register a shutout.
That changed Monday.
L.A. flipped the switch in Game 3 and showed the world that it can still defend with the best of them. This was textbook Kings hockey, funneling shots to the outside and dominating the net-front battles to prevent second-chance opportunities.
There was very little panic and few blown assignments.
Unlike the defense in Rounds 1 through 3—as well as Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final—this defense didn’t skate around in circles until it was paper-thin. It was disciplined and systematic in its coverage, swarming the Rangers with layer upon layer of bodies and sticks.
Just look at this Benoit Pouliot attempt from the third period:
Greene has the man in the slot while Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik patrol the middle of the ice in search of potential threats. The Kings completely outnumber the Rangers in the high-percentage areas. Without a passing option, Pouliot merely fires a shot from a bad angle.
A little earlier in the contest, Dwight King is unable to dump the puck in deep. Nevertheless, the ensuing Rangers attack is harmless because of L.A.'s strong defense.
Derick Brassard spots Hagelin streaking through the slot and throws the puck there, but Doughty comfortably lifts his stick. Jarret Stoll gathers possession, chips the puck out and New York endures yet another one-and-done in the offensive zone:
Moreover, as is usually the case when the Kings are playing well, calmness on defense translated to offense.
In the second period, Clifford engages in a puck battle with a pinching Dan Girardi along the wall while St. Louis fails to provide positional support.
Clifford's only goal here should be to push the point of attack beyond his blue line. He does that and then some by flipping the puck out to Richards, who then launches a two-on-one opportunity with Trevor Lewis:
Seconds later, the Kings are up 3-0, and the Rangers’ fate is sealed.
Throughout the entire night, L.A. held the upper hand in these man-on-man tilts in the trenches. It contained New York to the perimeter, patiently maintaining its shape until its physicality and smarts allowed the team to exit its zone unscathed.
Naturally, there were a couple of hiccups in Game 3, but the Kings provided as stellar a display on defense as they’ve mustered in about two years.
When L.A.’s defense did falter, Quick was there. The much-maligned netminder delivered his finest outing in ages on Monday, robbing the Rangers on a couple of close-call opportunities and otherwise instilling a sense of reliability in the crease.
There were no juicy rebounds, and he wasn’t caught flailing outside the blue paint.
Quick was in full control, largely repelling the Rangers’ bids with ease as the defensemen cleared his line of sight.
It hasn’t occurred frequently in the 2013-14 playoffs, but the synchronicity between L.A.’s blue line and its star goaltender is beautiful to watch when it’s on.
Against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks, it felt like the team might buckle at any given moment. Despite New York’s significant advantage in shots, Game 3 always belonged to the Kings.
With that said, Quick was scintillating on a couple of chances.
In the first period, Williams can’t quite get to the puck along the boards. John Moore recovers it and swiftly fires on goal from distance, which creates havoc in front of L.A.’s net.
Through the mass of bodies, Quick tracks the loose puck and denies Zuccarello at the goal line with an acrobatic stick save:
Midway through the second frame, the Kings have just finished killing a penalty. Girardi sends a shot into the traffic and Kopitar gets his stick on it, only the puck deflects back toward Quick.
Once again, L.A.’s goaltender sharply follows the play, showing off his remarkable flexibility by moving across the cage in the splits to deny Brassard on a golden opportunity:
It was 2-0 at the time, so a Rangers goal would have obviously been massive.
Quick wouldn’t have any of it. All night, he thwarted New York's designs with a blend of equanimity and unreal athletic ability, turning away shot after shot until the Rangers had nothing left in the tank.
From the crease on out, the Kings finally showed up for a full 60 minutes in Game 3.
The previous two contests—sloppy, chaotic games—were decided by one team’s outright refusal to lose. Monday night’s affair was claimed by an L.A. squad that honed in on its strengths, taking care of business by managing the puck intelligently, slowing New York’s offense to a crawl and relying on Quick when necessary.
Sutter’s men were opportunistic and demonstrated a real killer instinct, capitalizing on the Rangers’ mistakes while limiting their own. This was textbook Kings hockey.
When their guts and resilience are paired with sound tactics and execution, they run like a well-oiled machine.
They’re in a groove now, and taking four straight games from them may well be an impossibly tall order.
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