Not quite adding up. Thursday’s Kings-Sabres game, deemed by shot and chance-based metrics to be a level of L.A. domination equivalent to a Cowboys-Bills Super Bowl, wasn’t a model of the combined fruits being greater than their individual labors. There were, again, encouraging signs in structure, and, over the final 50 minutes or so, a healthy forecheck that didn’t allow Buffalo to get anything going at even strength. Los Angeles’ 80 shot attempts at five-on-five were the most since the nadir of the 2011-12 season when they recorded 81 during a 4-2 loss to Minnesota in Terry Murray’s second-to-last game. But games are 60 minutes long, and a lightning-quick 20-year-old easily penetrated the Kings in transition twice in the early-going and found prime, soft spots as part of a three-point, second-star effort in the 3-0 win. This is a younger player’s league, and the Kings’ potential impact player selected three spots after Mittelstadt isn’t available. Rather, many of the surplus opportunities weren’t converted, which has been a periodic staple of this team’s M.O. even in the best of times. But with Jeff Carter continuing to add on to a healthy bank account of early-season chances if not his goal total, and others like Joakim Ryan (who activated to hit a post and is also among those capable of pushing the puck up-ice quickly) owning some good moments, they were unable to capitalize on their chances, did not generate the quality or quantity of the Sabres’ rush chances, yielded effective long chances again and relied on uneven performances from individuals, including a number of their star players.
The game furthered the eternal Ilya Kovalchuk paradox. Kovalchuk was as engaged, physical and committed as any player on the ice, but this is a results-based league, and he took three stick infractions, missed three nets, including one on a pristine Grade-A look, and was on the ice for both goals against (though those goals were scored from Austin Wagner’s side of the ice, representing positional mistakes on consecutive shifts that added some definition with Todd McLellan’s reference to players who “may have scored 10, 12, 14, 15 goals last year. You think you’re going to 25 and giving up 30? It’s not going to work that way.”) While Buffalo was at game speed from the start and took advantages of narrow and opportunistic openings, they were the latest team to capitalize on an early window despite Los Angeles’ otherwise strong first periods. Edmonton (0:53), Vancouver (5:26), Nashville (4:55), Vegas (5:42) and Buffalo (2:36) have all scored early against the Kings, who have been outscored 8-2 in the opening seven minutes of first periods this season.
There were other incomplete or insufficient individual performances. These aren’t depicted in the chance or possession stats, which aren’t particularly useful for individual games and paint a territorial picture, to quote MGoBlog, of a baby seal clubbing. Looking closer, Anze Kopitar was on the ice for 25 shot attempts for, though he didn’t record a shot on goal of his own over the final 53 minutes of the game. I’ve seen Drew Doughty play as the best defenseman in the world for years at a time, and I’ve seen him in a season like last year, where the impenetrable aura of his all-situational near-perfection was dented. Last night’s game continued the latter trend, but there are reasons for a start that’s quieter than his three goals and five points might suggest. He’s experienced change in his personal life, he’s gone through three different defensive partners since the start of training camp, he’s learning a new system in which the level of competition affords no margin for error. Perhaps an emotional game against Matthew Tkachuk and Calgary is what’s needed to spur the extra dynamism into a player whose Matrix-like fluidity and natural instincts with the puck are a touch overshadowed right now by his navigation of a new system and how it affects his positioning and understanding when to activate and engage.