It’s not the easiest point to convey while the Kings are on their second five-game losing streak of the last 30 days, but the impact of last night’s spectacle went far beyond the events that happened on the ice and more into the abstract. It was a celebration of 1967 National Hockey League expansion, Wayne Gretzky, and the proof that while there are regional footprints, a “State of Hockey” and a “Hockeytown,” the embrace of the sport by those in Southern California can be represented by neon and pastel joggers out of central casting, beach volleyball players, and a street hockey game. My freshman year of college, I remember carrying my hockey bag several blocks through a heavy Midwest snowfall as the sound of new, dry snow crunched under my feet. That’s not representative of Southern California hockey. Here, players do wear shorts and sweatshirts inside rinks and step outside to 70 degree temperatures. I watch the Kings leave the practice facility, and they are wearing flip flops. It is not a cliché or a lazy generalization by an opposing writer or broadcaster. Independent of the growing number of players from the Southland who play junior hockey, collegiately and professionally, there is a distinctiveness to Southern California hockey, and it was well represented by the game’s surroundings. Watching Gretzky draw a standing ovation as he entered the stadium from center field, and listening to Bob Miller as he introduced Vin Scully on a tranquil January evening at Chavez Ravine provided a perfect surrounding for the game, which unfortunately took place during a stretch of the season in which the Kings have become particularly goal-starved and faced a rival that is now 21-3-0 in its last 24 games.
If only we could have been treated to the roar of 54,099 fans (minus those wearing orange) celebrating a goal, but unfortunately the Kings are squandering scoring chances left and right and are in a stretch in which “opportunism” has been replaced in the vernacular by the term “bearing down,” a familiar cry following snake-bitten losses such as Saturday’s. They’ve scored zero goals or one goal in six of the 12 games this month, and similar to Thursday’s Stadium Series preview, were unable to capitalize on a variety of chances presented. Though the Ducks made the most of their net-crashing early, the pivotal play in this game was Jonas Hiller’s denial of a first period Anze Kopitar penalty shot attempt. There’s a huge difference between a one-goal game in which the trailing team is buoyed by an awakened crowd, and a two-goal game in which the trailing team is having trouble generating quality opportunities. Credit the Ducks for adhering to what makes road teams successful in Winter Classic games. They scored two early goals and eliminated what had been a loud, partisan Kings crowd.
Though Los Angeles was outshooting Anaheim throughout the game, I didn’t really get a feel that the Kings offered much of a concerted push to narrow the two-goal gap until the third period. It didn’t appear as though the defense was regularly being activated or that the F3 would cheat towards scoring opportunities until later in the game. The result was that the second period was a muddled wash and that there weren’t many odd-man rushes generated. I don’t see it in my notes, and I’m having difficulty recalling a quality 3-on-2 chance produced by Los Angeles. The Kings possessed the puck disproportionately and took 20 shots in the first period, though other than Anze Kopitar’s breakaway and subsequent penalty shot, how many of those shots were generated by a pristine opportunity? Credit Jonas Hiller for keeping the door shut in the third period during the height of the Kings’ pressure.
Through the five-game losing streak, the Kings have been struggling to translate shot attempts into shots on goal. Of the 289 shots Los Angeles has attempted over the stretch, only 151 were on net (52.2%). Their opponents have attempted 236 shots, of which 134 have found the net (56.8%). On Saturday night the Ducks blocked 17 shots; the Kings blocked two.
Relaying shot metrics almost seems silly considering the scope of the Stadium Series game, and I hope you’ll forgive the absence of zone entries last night. The game served as a historic moment in the account of Los Angeles sports culture, and though it ultimately was unsatisfying from a competitive sense, and we never got to hear a goal horn in Dodger Stadium, and a chief rival was able to celebrate on what was profoundly the Kings’ turf, I’ll still remember the moment the players walked up through the steps of the dugout and towards the playing surface, eliciting a proud roar. I’ll still remember navigating the Dodger Stadium parking lot amidst Kopitar, Quick, Robitaille and Gretzky jerseys, and I’ll always remember Bob Miller and Vin Scully standing side by side in front of an adoring crowd. The on-ice action won’t be the most memorable aspect of an evening that still provided a unique expression of what it meant to grow up as a Kings and Dodgers fan in Los Angeles. It’s too bad the result on the ice didn’t match the preparation and execution of the spectacle that surrounded it.