Well, there are several forces in play here. There’s one in which the LA Kings have opened the year 0-for-21 on the power play, a surprising 12-for-17 on the penalty kill and sport a minus-four goal differential with a possession rate in the red. There’s another in which 11 days of the season have elapsed, and teams like Ottawa and Vancouver that weren’t projected as playoff teams currently occupy playoff spots, just as teams like Vegas and St. Louis, who were expected to be highly competent, face their own early inconsistencies. There’s the widely held understanding that you should take what you see in early and mid-October with a healthy dose of skepticism, but to this point, the eye test does not pan out. Several familiar staples of team success – suppressing shots, relying on terrific penalty killing and out-possessing their opponents – aren’t there right now, leading to questions about identity. Will that be sorted out? Perhaps; they’ve had suspect starts before. Sometimes they’ve made the playoffs, and sometimes they haven’t. There’s nothing consistently positive from the recent data. It depicts a team that scored one goal in three of four games on the road trip and, though it benefited from moments of strong five-on-five play on Monday, doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to beat teams like the Maple Leafs.
To beat a team like Toronto requires avoiding the variables like those experienced last night. You can’t allow a goal from below the goal line on the game’s first shift, and you can’t give a 47.5% power play a second first period opportunity after soldiering through a stout and important kill earlier. You can reference any sort of impressive five-on-five stretch by the Kings, and there were quite a few of them in the middle of the first and the second half of the second, but in a game in which Los Angeles fell behind 2-0 after one and was stung by inopportune lapses, any advantages in direction of play ring hollow. By the time the Kings really started to get their team game going – at one point swapping out several forwards while maintaining possession of the puck in the offensive zone in five-on-five play late in the second – they were again down two goals and any probability of victory slim. Though the Kings’ high-danger chances out-numbered the Leafs’ 10-7, per Natural Stat Trick, Los Angeles doesn’t have the same level of skill to transfer that scoring chance advantage into actual goals and points. It takes time for certain players, particularly younger ones, to establish themselves and their role, but the Kings aren’t young, and beyond the top line, there’s just not enough regular scoring right now.
Nine of the next 11 games are at home. Four of those nine are against teams that did not make the playoffs last season. Six are against Eastern Conference teams against whom Los Angeles was 93-54-13 over the previous five seasons. As many of us have said, this is a playoff bubble team that won’t have a great deal of playoff wiggle room either way. From the Nice Detective Work, Insider Department, these early season home games against the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres are important tests that they’ll need to pass to ensure that they don’t fall too far into the pack and have to claw their way towards strong footing from a standings disadvantage.
-Lead photo via Mark Blinch/NHLI