After Tuesday’s Anaheim game, I asked someone who had seen last weekend’s Ducks-Sharks game what their impression of San Jose was, knowing the teal-clad Northern Californians had made some significant strides in their team game since some early season struggles. The answer? There’s a way they have to play to be successful, and it revolves around their ability to check and defend well and win low-scoring games. It was shared that it’s not entirely different from recent Kings teams, and comments over the last several days by John Stevens and the players shared the similarities and highlighted some minor differences between the teams’ often close-to-the-vest identities. On Sunday, it was the Sharks who minimized their mistakes and defended exceptionally well, closing off passing lanes, shutting down options down low, getting their sticks and bodies in front of shots, relying on standout goaltending and demonstrating stout defensive zone coverage that yielded one power play goal, and by LAKI’s count, only seven five-on-five scoring opportunities. Over the final 40 minutes of the game, it almost appeared as though there were six Sharks in their defensive zone whenever the Kings were attempting to set up plays and get pucks through to hard areas. Through that game span, Los Angeles was out-shot, 29-19.
Essentially, this was a game between the top two goals-against teams in the league that was decided when the Kings were unable to put a second puck behind Martin Jones for valuable insurance. Try as they might – and oh, Tyler Toffoli tried all night – the Adrian Kempe line had the best chances out of any line at even strength but was unable to convert. Kempe led his winger so well with a slick northbound puck towards Tanner Pearson after a controlled zone entry, and Pearson was able to get Martin Jones to open up his legs after cutting to the front of the crease, but couldn’t tuck the puck into the opening and beyond the goal line on the backhand. Questions can be raised as to whether Pearson, who has one even strength goal this season, has been significantly affected by the absence of right-shooting Jeff Carter, because Tyler Toffoli has largely been the beneficiary of that group’s switch to a left-shooting center. Pearson has contributed in other ways, and has still been making plays and generating his share of chances; the goals from that line are mostly coming from Toffoli at this point. If that one mini-break ends with a different result, we’re probably here talking about the Kings’ ability to win a tight divisional game against a rival team and further distancing themselves from the Pacific Division pack. Less than two minutes later, the game was tied. Obviously Martin Jones was very good, but Jonathan Quick was every bit as solid and was simply felled by a seeing-eye skate redirect.
Another game, another call to tighten up puck management and scoring chances created off turnovers. The game-tying goal followed a flukish turnover that caromed off Tomas Hertl’s skate and directly to Melker Karlsson, who finished off Hertl’s rebound. It happened shortly after Los Angeles couldn’t get its forecheck going, and San Jose maneuvered through a fast, successful zone exit before working the puck into the offensive zone. On the game-winner, an exchange between Drew Doughty and Nick Shore failed to get the puck deep, thus putting the team in a position where they could get burned by an unfortunate deflection. Again: too many shots against. With an average of 33.1 shots against per game – including 33 allowed in Sunday’s loss – the Kings are tied for 22nd in the league in that category. Their league-leading .927 save percentage has masked some of the challenges they’ve faced in puck management, which has to be improved for the team to uphold its impressive early season pace.
-Lead photo via Adam Pantozzi/NHLI