There was an interesting conversation I had with several broadcasters before the start of Thursday’s St. Louis game. How long could Los Angeles keep up their territorial dominance? What would be the result? There are ebbs and flows within a season, but could they maintain such strong execution of their forecheck? Is it possible for the former 30th place team – standings-wise and offensively – to make such a substantial leap in goals per game? What would happen once their level of competition dropped off from the 1953 Yankees? Well, the latter hasn’t quite happened yet, but I think I missed an awfully significant factor. This is a young and inexperienced defense, and there will be nights like Thursday in which the entire group is pushed back by teams that commit to checking effectively and win a greater proportion of the one-on-one battles. While that wasn’t exclusively the case last night – the Blues did their damage on the power play, while the Kings did so at 5×5 – they did struggle to contain the opposition’s top players on the man advantage as their role players also forged an effective night along the boards and in tight spaces. The Blues are a heavy team, but heaviness isn’t measured exclusively by the Niklas Kronwall Quotient. “You go back to when Panger (Darren Pang) was playing, it was just running guys through the end wall and fighting,” Todd McLellan said. “Now, it’s shot blocking, it’s battles in the faceoff circle. I think Blake Lizotte’s one of our most physical players, and he’s small but he’s got a tenacity to him, he strips pucks, he gets body position. That’s physicality.” It wasn’t 2013 Kings-Blues, it was a game in which the defending champs won the boards battles, stick battles, body position battles (still, that was an impressive Vladimir Tarasenko race and neutralization by Sean Walker), and ultimately the game.
The penalty kill has reared its head in the team’s losses. Thursday’s game was the third of 10 in which Los Angeles allowed at least two power play goals. The Kings have to kill off those power plays. Water is wet. But the Blues opportunistically surged ahead on momentum created by questionable calls – if one is to be diplomatic. Because it appeared that Kyle Clifford may have raised an elbow to get an inside lane on Ivan Barbashev, there was a visual that lifted a net-front puck battle to borderline status. (I still think it looked like Barbashev caught an edge, which with the momentum from Clifford’s leveraging caused him to spin to the ice.) Looking at the replay (via @kingsgifs), that’s a play in which two hard forwards raced to a puck and Clifford had inside position and momentum. In a game in which St. Louis was awarded the first two power plays, I’m surprised that call was made. The real mistake was the lack of judgement from the play that followed. Jordan Binnington skated from his crease to the right hashmarks. Like, what’s he doing there? He has no business there. His path would’ve intersected with Clifford, who braced himself with his shoulder and as they stared each other down, Clifford gave him a two-handed shove. Brayden Schenn and Barbashev then pushed Clifford into the walls as a rhubarb sprouted. The Blues went on to score on the ensuing power play before notching the game-winner a minute and 40 seconds later amidst a surge of momentum. In the grand scheme, it’s impossible to say whether the Kings would have won this game without those judgements. (An argument could be made that they still would have lost, given the opposition’s superior battle component, contributions from a wider swath of personnel and the “will” that McLellan mentioned Friday morning.) But it did provide a springboard of momentum for a team ran with it. Do Cup winners more often than not get the benefit of the doubt? On Thursday, they did.