Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Kings showing their championship swagger
By Pierre LeBrun
LOS ANGELES -- Chatting with an NHL GM the other day, he was asked how he felt things would play out in the San Jose Sharks-Los Angeles Kings second-round playoff series.
He didn’t hesitate.
“The Sharks were really good against the Canucks, but I’m telling you, the Kings have their championship swagger back,” the GM said.
Make it five wins in a row for the reigning Cup champions after a 2-0 victory Tuesday night to open the best-of-seven set with their Northern California rivals.
This game was far from a classic, with the Kings outshot 16-4 in the third period and hanging on for a bit.
But in many ways it represented the comfortable base the Kings have found again come playoff time.
That swagger comes from rediscovering the ways in which the Kings found success last season.
Jonathan Quick stingy in net? Check.
A blue-line corps led by Drew Doughty, Robyn Regehr, Rob Scuderi and Slava Voynov balancing swift puck-moving abilities with strong physical play? Check.
A suffocating penalty kill? Check.
Rolling four forward lines without hesitation? Check.
And while Quick no doubt will continue to receive most of the attention for yet another gem on this night -- a 35-save shutout, boosting his playoff save percentage to .953 -- to me another important catalyst on this team once again is Mike Richards.
For a second spring in a row, the second-line center is bringing it at playoff time.
“He just steps up,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after the Game 1 victory. “It’s refreshing to see guys like that, that when it’s a big game they step up. He did it last series.
“Him and Jeff [Carter] and Kinger [Dwight King] were real effective tonight.”
Richards set up Voynov on the opening goal late in the first period, and then redirected Voynov’s point shot in the second period as the Kings got all the goals they needed. Make it seven points (one goal, six assists) in seven playoff games this spring for Richards, who put up 15 points (four and 11) in 20 playoff games last spring while raising the Cup for the first time in his NHL career.
But offense is just a part of his game. Strong on both sides of the puck, Richards was at his thorny best Tuesday night, taking space away from Sharks forwards and getting in their face whenever he could.
Richards was mostly matched up against Joe Thornton’s line Tuesday night, and though Jumbo’s unit had several strong shifts in the Kings’ offensive zone, it was shut out on the scoreboard.
That Thornton-Richards matchup is going to be a doozy in this series. Both were tremendous Tuesday.
But this is what makes the Kings so difficult to beat. First-line center Anze Kopitar is one of the league’s top two-way players, for my money a player that should win a Selke Trophy before he retires. When you’ve got that kind of 200-foot protection from both your top two centers, there’s little room to breathe for opposing forwards.
Just ask the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
And so the Sharks, who pounded Vancouver for 15 goals in four games in the opening round, were reminded Tuesday night that this is going to be a whole different series.
Goals are going to be hard to come by. A higher price against a more physical team must be paid to score in this series if you’re San Jose.
Yes, they outshot the Kings 35-20. But Sharks coach Todd McLellan has seen this before.
“I just spent a week reviewing the St. Louis series, and I heard a lot of the same stuff coming out of their mouths,” McLellan said. “We didn’t accomplish enough. There’s a team that just played against them for six nights that said they had a lot of chances and the goaltending made a number of saves. We can’t be that team again. We have to make it a lot harder on him. Did we generate some chances? Yes. But we didn’t win the game.”
An incredibly important matchup in this series will be the Sharks’ dangerous power play against the Kings’ superb penalty kill. San Jose torched Vancouver for seven power-play goals in four games, while Los Angeles frustrated the Blues by allowing only a pair of goals to the man advantage in the first round.
That’s going to be important turf in this series. If the Sharks are going to have a tougher time scoring five-on-five, they must take advantage of their power-play opportunities.
On Tuesday night, they went 0-for-3, and while they did generate some chances, the Kings were quick on clearing rebounds and Quick stood tall when called upon.
“There was one power play that I didn’t like tonight. Otherwise the other ones were decent, we moved it around,” veteran Sharks blue-liner Dan Boyle said. “But if you don’t score, it doesn’t matter how well you moved it around. We didn’t get the one goal on the power play that this team probably needed.”
Whether it’s on the power play or five-on-five, the Sharks are going to need to get tougher around the Kings’ net and crash the blue paint looking for tips and rebounds.
“We have players that are capable of scoring greasy, dirty playoff-style goals,” McLellan said. “But it’s going to have come out in this series.”
Of course, these were things the Blues talked about last round without quite enough success in pulling it off.
They were also things that Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey spoke about last spring.
Easier said than done.