As critical as Monday night's win over Vancouver was for the Kings and their level confidence, tonight's Game 4 is even bigger and more meaningful. A win would mean that the Kings 2-1 grip on the series would become a stranglehold. There's no secret to how the Kings have won the last two games against the Canucks. The key is whether the trend will continue tonight.
With that as prologue, here are three things to watch for:
1. Goaltending. Who would have thought that the focus of attention in this area would be the guy between the pipes for the Canucks, Roberto Luongo? Jonathan Quick, his counterpart in the Kings net, was the guy who limped into the post-season, 0 for 8 in his futile attempt to win his 40th regular season game, looking to restore both his confidence and technical skills, such as controlling rebounds, handling the puck, and emphasizing positioning over athleticism.
And what happens?
Quick is the hero in Game 1. Even though the Kings lost 3-2 in overtime, he proved that he was back, with a heroic 40-plus save performance that accomplished what he'd done so often during the season, before the Olympic break--he gave his team a chance to win. And neither he nor the King have looked back since.
As for Luongo, he's not only 0-2 in the last two games he's played, with a horrid 4.17 GAA and a .854 save percentage, but he was yanked on Monday night, after surrendering four goals on just 16 shots.
The party line from every member of the Kings going into tonight is respectful: All you hear is that Luongo is a world class goalie, that Monday night was an aberration, that they completely expect him to bounce back with a stellar performance tonight. And maybe he will. But keep in mind that in his last two performances at Staples--remember the 8 goals the Kings scored on him on April 1?--Luongo has now allowed 12 goals and didn't finish Monday's game.
The Kings are clearly in his head. How they stay there leads us to the second thing to watch for tonight:
2. The best way to stay in Luongo's head is to stay in his face--literally. That means those two big bodies, Michal Handzus and Fredrik Modin continue their tenacious cycling below the dots and the ubiquitous Ryan Smyth assumes his usual position--which is between the Luongo's line of sight and the puck.
Coach Terry Murray has been preaching the same hockey sermon every day: If an NHL goalie can see the shots coming at him, he's going to stop them--every time. The only way to beat a goalie at this level--especially a great one like Luongo--is to crash the net, create traffic, and get him out of his comfort zone. Do that and you score the kind of goals that are prevalent this time of year, pucks that bounce in off skates and sticks, arms and legs. Even goals like the one that Smyth scored the other night to put the Kings up 5-3 and ice the win: It was a desperation shot at the end of a shift. Smyth was on fumes, at the end of a shift, and he just fired a shot at the net. The puck hit a defender's skate, started flipping and went in over the glove of Andrew Raycroft, who was relieving Luongo.
3. Power Play and "Heavy Play": The Kings were a perfect 3 for 3 on their power play on Monday night and are a stunning 7 of 12 so far in the series. Kid defensemen Drew Doughty (20) and Jack Johnson (23) have done a masterful job of creating different looks each time the Kings go on the power play, finding different lanes, setting up unpredictable one-timers and most important of all, getting pucks to the net. That's because the Canucks are biting on a lot of the fake shots and passes that the duo are giving them. Unless they adjust, this trend is only going to continue.
As for the reference to "Heavy Play," that's an expression you hear a lot from Murray. It's his way of emphasizing the importance of every player on his team not only being responsible as far as his forechecking and backchecking duties are concerned, but being physical--getting to pucks first, delivering hard checks, wearing down the opposition. Do that long enough and "hard" enough--in both the offensive and defensive ends and through the neutral zone--and eventually the opposition stop going to spots in the ice that at one time were comfortable.
The irony is that just a few minutes into Game 3 on Monday night, it looked like the Canucks were going to run the Kings out of the building. Dustin Brown, Rich Clune and Smyth all were on the receiving end of some devastating hits that were doled out by the Canucks. The Kings kept their cool, the Canucks started taking penalties and that was the difference in the game.
The Kings have to be extra vigilant with this heavy approach when it comes to four players on the Canucks--the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, Ryan Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson, who in particular has been a force for the Canucks, scoring 4 goals and 5 points so far in the series.
Vancouver is a team that loves to create from behind and to the side of the opposition's net, cycling out of the corners, or setting up behind the goal and slipping passes through the crease to onrushing teammates. That style was beautifully executed on the Canucks first goal on Monday, when Kesler spun around the net and slid a pass to Mason Raymond for an easy goal.
That area around the net is going to be critical tonight for both teams: The Kings need to defend every inch of ice around their goal and not allow the Canucks to maneuver out of the cycle. And at the other end? Business as usual for Smyth, Modin and Handzus. If they can make Luongo's night as miserable as it was on Monday, it should mean another win and a 3-1 lead in the series for the Kings.