Waking up with the Kings: January 1
Not to contradict Darryl Sutter’s assessment that the Los Angeles Kings “played really well” in a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on New Year’s Eve, but the team’s performance, which came after a 2:30 arrival at the team hotel the morning of the game, was not as crisp or as tight as the comprehensively sound performance in the 1-0 loss to Chicago the night before. Though the game was disrupted by special teams time for a good portion of the first 40 minutes, too much of last night’s game was played without much of a consistent neutral zone challenge as a loosey goosey two periods opened up wide swaths of space in an end-to-end game that favored Dallas’ attacking style. It wasn’t until the start of the third period, when the Kings trailed 3-1 – and 3-2, after Anze Kopitar’s early third period goal – that the game once again resembled a familiar style of Kings hockey in which the team won perimeter battles and possessed the puck disproportionately.
After not paying a great deal of attention to Valeri Nichushkin in Los Angeles’ 5-2 win over Dallas early in the season, the 18-year-old has commanded focus over the last two games these teams have met. At 6-foot-4 and a shade over 200 pounds, the rookie is growing into an ideal hockey body that will continue to fill out and mature. His third period drive to the net in which he shouldered off and leveraged Olympic defenseman Drew Doughty while drawing a holding penalty was the image from this game that will stick with me beyond anything else. Selected 10th overall – the Vancouver Canucks, looking to replenish their youth, passed on Nichushkin with the ninth pick – the teenager is trending in the right direction towards becoming a Calder Trophy finalist, and with dynamic forward Tomas Hertl sidelined indefinitely following knee surgery, it appears as though the race to become the league’s top rookie could evolve into a focus between Nichushkin and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. Stars power forward Alex Chiasson, who earned 4:10 of power play time last night, could also enter into the mix. Though it remains to be seen whether he’ll develop similar hands, the comparisons between Nichushkin and Evgeni Malkin, and the marble-strong on the puck Jaromir Jagr shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Though Scrivens and Jones have played remarkably, the second and third string Los Angeles goaltenders weren’t going to maintain a sub-1.75 goals against average for the entirety of Jonathan Quick’s two-month absence. The two have combined to stop 105 of the 116 shots (.905%) over the past four games, and unfortunately the drop-off in goaltending came at the time in which the Kings haven’t found any consistent scoring. The six goals scored by the team during the losing streak have come, in order, from Williams, Stoll, Kopitar, Carter, Carter and Kopitar. Because Stoll’s goal came while he was centering Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, the last goals scored by a player other than a top-six forward were goals by Alec Martinez against San Jose on December 19, and Jordan Nolan against Edmonton on December 17. If this trend continues, it has the possibility of raising the scoring stress on the team’s top two lines, similar to what had happened during the first half of the 2011-12 season.
-Happy New Year, Insiders! I’m going to get back to work on my LAKings.com feature, so talk amongst yourselves until the USA Olympic Roster is announced roughly two and a half hours from now. Enjoy the Winter Classic from a warm, comfortable place, and hope that this game generates some mojo towards my 2014 Michigan Wolverines season! Are any Insiders in Ann Arbor today?