Saturday’s 4-1 win in San Jose was as comprehensive of a victory as the Kings have experienced on the road in the rivalry in years from a technical standpoint. The detail, the lack of defensive zone time, the high-quality options generated from areas with a higher capacity to create offense, the potent (if ultimately unsuccessful) power play pressure all combined to result in a scoring chance disparity that was as wide as the series has seen this decade.
The loosening of the team’s reins seemed apparent, and as Anze Kopitar described it, was derived from the team’s rhythm and playmaking in the offensive zone.
“There’s a lot more creativity to our game than there was previously. Just getting chances,” he said. “We’re creating stuff, and that’s the most important thing, but we’re creating in high-scoring, high-danger areas. I had a couple shots right from the slot, which hasn’t happened a lot the last few years, and that’s what we’re trying to get. We’re trying to get people there, we’re trying to use the back of the net, we’re trying to just create, maybe spread it out a little more than we did. Just jump into posts and be available for each other.”
Two games is an insignificant sample size, but as noted on Sunday, it’s better to be on the giving end than the receiving end of Saturday’s demonstration. There have been subtle tweaks to the team’s positioning and ability to make plays on the attack, and Kopitar’s freedom to position himself closer to the slot than the blue line as a center has created match-up difficulties while freeing up the option to make plays from behind the net.
“The behind the net, it’s releasing the pressure,” Assistant Coach Pierre Turgeon said last week. A sizable percentage of his 515 goals and 1,327 points were generated from that vantage point. “Every time there’s an overload on one side, if you’re able to release that pressure somehow and using that behind the net and creating some confusion – the D’s going, he’s not going, which one is going?”
That confusion resulted in continued pressure and Melker Karlsson scoring an own goal that was credited to Nick Shore, whose pressure, along with Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis, forced San Jose into harrowed situations. It wasn’t only that line – when the Kings were getting men deep in the offensive zone, it appeared as though there were waves of pressure that allowed the team numbers to effectively operate its forecheck.
“You can put the puck in a place where you can retrieve it,” Turgeon said. “You can have good pressure, and all of a sudden, the first guy hits it, the second guy comes in, and all of a sudden you start creating what you want to create. Puck placement, using that ice on your entry, going wide and making sure that D comes to you, and then you’re going to create a two-on-one somehow. Transition the puck quickly instead of trying to hold that puck, and all of a sudden everyone gets in position in front of you.”
If there is an added freedom to make plays in the offensive zone, it isn’t because of any shirked responsibility in the other zones. Centers are still tasked with coming deep into their zone to start breakouts.
“Yeah, that’s always a staple of our game,” Kopitar said. “We want to have a strong middle, and by strong middle, I mean, us as centermen being solid in between the faceoff dots. Try to control that ice as much as we can. You’re trying to find a hole. Whether that’s coming low and supporting your D, or you’re trying to jump ahead of somebody because we’ve got puck-moving defensemen, we have all the confidence in them to make those plays.”
Los Angeles had plenty of strong starts, but they weren’t always rewarded last year. Their 7.8% shooting percentage in all situations ranked 28th in the league and did not allow their possession advantages turn into goals. On Saturday, they were rewarded early, and though San Jose responded quickly, used a Brent Burns neutral zone turnover that was quickly exchanged by Jake Muzzin up-ice to Kopitar to re-establish a warranted lead.
Two games represents a flash in the pan of an NHL season, but it wasn’t too hard to watch the team play on Saturday, on the road, against a rival, and notice some loosened purse strings.
“I think we were shooting the puck early and getting bodies to the net, so it kind of backed them off,” Kopitar said. “It was a good start, and obviously Brownie scoring pretty early in the period helped out. It was definitely the start that we wanted.”
-Lead photo: Harry How/Getty Images