The 2013-14 LA Kings are the most recent of the four teams to have won a Stanley Cup Playoffs series that it trailed three games to none. Most people reading a site with an address LAKingsInsider.com are probably aware that it was their 2014 first round win over the San Jose Sharks.
And now, the 2017-18 Kings are in the same hole that the 2013-14 club found themselves in after another tight Game 3 loss. Instead of Patrick Marleau’s game-winner in overtime, it was William Karlsson’s game-winner with 5:16 to play. The imperative remains the same: win or go home.
“We’ve done it before, but I don’t think we’re looking that far ahead,” Drew Doughty said. “Obviously we’ve got to win that series, but we’re not looking at it in that sort of way. We’ve just got to win one game right now.”
It’s a bit too early to start searching for significant parallels between the 2014 series and this current one. From a surface level, in 2014, the Kings were run out of the building in games 1 and 2 by an aggregate 13-5 count. Once the Kings turned that series around, Darryl Sutter’s famous line of “Six, seven, four, three, zero, one” – the number of goals allowed, game-by-game – depicted a clear departure from early games in the series.
Though, like 2014, there has been a game-by-game improvement in Los Angeles’ play, it hasn’t been matched by the same, equal, opposite reaction in Vegas’ performance. On the other hand, all three games in 2018 have been one-goal losses, including a Game 2 defeat in double overtime, so the margin between winning and losing is clearly closer than the early games in the San Jose series.
“I think it’s a little bit different, because I’m not saying we deserved to win all three of those games or anything, but I feel like this series we’ve been a little bit closer to winning the games whereas when we played in that San Jose series, those first two games, especially, they absolutely dominated us. I think it’s a little different there,” Doughty said. “Maybe we have a little more confidence going into this next game than we did in the past against San Jose, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. They’ve outplayed us, they’ve beat us three games in a row, and it’s time that we wake up here.”
Was there any spoken or unspoken acknowledgement that the 2014 team had the opportunity to write a new chapter of hockey history as the series elapsed?
“We didn’t really talk about it, but we kind of sensed it around the room that after we won one game, and then the second game, we were like, ‘we’ve got these guys on the ropes here and we can finish ‘em if we continue playing the right way,’” Jake Muzzin said.
It was that Game 5 that proved to be the most significant turning point. Defeating the Sharks by a margin much wider than the 3-0 score indicated was a major step towards the improbable comeback. They were also aided by the injury in that game to top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who would not return in the series.
The momentum swell also clearly affected San Jose’s top players, as Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau combined for three points and a minus-26 rating in the Sharks’ four opportunities to finish the Kings off. Are the Kings capable of such a massive momentum swing?
It’s not exactly what they’re thinking about at the moment.
“Momentum is huge in a series, in a game, in a period, but you can’t let that affect the whole game or the whole team,” Muzzin said. “You have to stay even keel and just play it out. They’re getting good opportunities, we’re getting good opportunities, and you’ve just got to stay with that game plan, stay with the emotional level and compete, and it’ll solve itself.”
It’s the playoffs, and the playoffs get really chippy, and there have been a number of non-calls in the series that haven’t gone in the Kings’ favor. Specifically, Brayden McNabb’s elbow on Anze Kopitar and Erik Haula’s butt end on Kopitar – a second attempt, after he wasn’t able to wriggle his arm free and find the proper reach during his first attempt – drew Stevens’ ire Sunday night during the team’s post-game press conference.
The first question Stevens was asked on Monday was about Haula’s butt end, and it was clear the Kings coach was ready to move on towards Game 4, and instead of impugning the hit, he highlighted his captain’s constitution and composure.
“That’s kind of water under the bridge,” Stevens said. “The only thing I would say to that whole discussion is if you look at a guy like Kopi, I think Kopi gets penalized because he plays the game like a man. He’s not a guy that’s going to embellish calls, gets a hook on him, falls down. He fights through all that stuff. If you look at every time he’s on the ice, you could probably call a penalty on the guy defending him just because he’s such a big strong guy and he protects the puck so well. I think they get away with a lot against him just because of the way he plays. He’s about as tough and honest as a competitor as you’re going to find. He does everything he can to stay on his feet in all those situations. It’s playoff hockey. Things happen. The game’s tough. They’ve got access to video. We’re not going to waste a lot of time debating whether they should or shouldn’t look at something. They apparently know what they’re doing, so we’re going to let them do their job and we’re going to try to do ours.”
Players judged to have butt-ended their opponents are often assessed major penalties, with a match penalty assessed for a butt-end that causes an injury.
But players and teams understand the heightened animosity and physicality of playoff hockey, and even though these are not “hockey plays,” the Department of Player Safety has not shown a regular willingness to levy suspensions against players for elbows away from the play as much as they are looking to cut down on checks to the head of an opponent.Both teams will move on amidst the simmering chippiness of a developing rivalry.
“I don’t like a lot of guys on that team, and I’m pretty sure almost every guy on that team doesn’t like me,’ Drew Doughty said. “It’s just part of playoffs. We’ll do anything it takes to win. When the series is over, you obviously shake the other team’s hands, and everything’s all good after that, but then the next season you get back out there and we’re back to hating each other again.”
“Most of the guys in the NHL, there’s a reason we’re in the NHL. A lot of that is how much we love the game, how competitive we are, and it’s just part of the game. Sometimes there are dirty plays out there and stuff like that, but as players, you’re going to complain about it for a bit, but at the same time we know we’re going to do the same thing back. You’re just doing whatever it takes to win, and it’s part of the game of hockey.”
Doughty noted that in the dressing room, the players had been talking about Haula’s hit on Kopitar. “I hear it’s pretty bad. I wonder if they’ll do anything – I don’t know. He said he was also very aware of his episode with Jonathan Marchessault in which he clapped at the Vegas winger before the Golden Knight was sent to the penalty box for high-sticking.
“No, I’m happy I did that. He literally tried to decapitate me with his stick,” he said. “It’s kind of screwed up that he did that. Obviously it probably doesn’t look good on me that I did that, but whatever.”
It’s another example of some of the coarser details of playoff hockey gamesmanship and emotion.
“Yep, there’s lots of chirping. I’m sure everyone saw it,” Muzzin said. “There’s battles, hits, grabbing, tripping, all that stuff. It’s playoff hockey. It’s tough out there, and we’re going to have to be tougher.”
Muzzin stepped into Game 3 and logged 22:03 of game action. He was credited with two shots on goal, one hit, as well as 2:48 of shorthanded time.
“I thought we played a better game last night, but we still have better, and we’re going to need to be better to get tomorrow’s win,” he said. “We’ll look at some things tonight and get better.”
There were good things Muzzin did and some things he’ll look to improve on for Game 4. His first shift resumed the intensity so inherent in the hard-checking aspects of his game, which rounded sharply into form this season.
Good hit by Muzzin turns the play in the other direction. Good checking leading to rush chances. Among the reason the Kings' absences on D hurts their offense.
— Jon Rosen (@lakingsinsider) April 16, 2018
But there were also aspects of his game that could be touched up, including the first period shift in which his clearance up the center of the ice was intercepted and followed by a loose puck he inadvertently backhanded, with the aid of a deflection, on Jonathan Quick’s right pad.
“It felt fast for me, the first period. But then it settled in. It’s the same,” he said. “They’re a big, fast, heavy team, and so are we. We’ve got to do a better job at closing gaps from the D and back pressure from the forwards, and I think that’ll take away some of their speed, and I thought we did a better job of that last night, and we’re going to have to continue doing that tomorrow.”
Muzzin will again log hard minutes against top opponents for Game 4 Tuesday night at Staples Center.
“It’s a tough environment, I think, to come back in for Muzz, but he’s got a lot of experience in that situation,” Stevens said. “I thought Muzz was OK. I think he’ll get better as time goes on just with getting his legs back under him, timing, reference point for his opponent. Obviously playing with Drew helps because I think Drew makes everybody better around him, but certainly a good addition coming back in our lineup because we count on him in a lot of different situations. I think it’s good for us having him back in there, for sure.”
Even as he sat in the press box at T-Mobile Arena on Friday night, there was the clear, visceral urge that he needed to be on the ice with his teammates.
“I did not like sitting out and watching our guys go to war,” he said. “I have a hard time watching the game, so it was definitely nice to be out there, battling with them. … It’s nice to throw the body around a little bit again.”
Tyler Toffoli’s stat line thus far in the playoffs? Three games, 14 shots, no goals.
It hasn’t been an easy go for Toffoli, even though he’s been one of the players on the team who has been able to generate offensive chances. He just hasn’t been able to cash in on them, the most pristine of which was a drop pass from Doughty in Game 3 in which he couldn’t lift the puck over Marc-Andre Fleury’s left pad with a yawning empty net with which to work.
“Ty had three great chances last night,” Stevens said. “The one, I told him 99 times out of 100 he makes that shot, so he owes me 99 more. I think the line can do more for us. That line’s had success before, and in order for us to have success, we’re going to need some momentum through our lineup, and that’s going to take Jeff’s line being a real factor for us.”
Of course, it’s not just one line that has to be difference makers, but rather all four lines going out and demonstrating a strong team game.
“I think Kopi’s line has been consistently there for us all the time, and like I said, those young guys took a big step for us. I think Thommer and Cliffie and Mitchie gave us momentum there. I think Thommer and Mitchie have done a real good job with our penalty kill and helping out in faceoff situations. We can certainly get more from our lineup. I think our D as a group can play better than they did last night, but I think we’re going to have to be better in all areas if we’re going to get back in the series and be on the right side of being close, and we can be.”
Toffoli said that he hasn’t changed what his mindset has been.
“It’s kind of been getting pucks on net and getting there, and like I said, I thought last night I had a lot of opportunities in front of the net and around the net, and I’ve just got to get pucks up and be able to find a way to score.”
“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to score. I’ve just got to be able to finish.”
-Lead photo via Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images