Dustin Brown was placed on the spot. Has there been any recent play he could recall in which effective checking turned a play around quickly, leading immediately to a goal at the other end of the ice?
“I think that Anaheim game, it was a close checking game. It was one of those Anaheim games,” he said. “But if you look at the goals we scored, it was because we came out of our own zone cleanly after killing a play and forechecking. I mean, they weren’t pretty goals. Carts, if you look at the 2-on-1 goal, it’s a play in the corner, a play along the wall, springing a 2-on-1.”
He was referencing a battle won along the boards in the Los Angeles end, which freed an odd-man rush in the other direction.
“I think it was Tanner who made a really good play on the wall,” Brown said. “Those wall plays, the corner plays, cutting plays off generates stuff going the other way.”
For a team that checks as well as the Kings, those types of plays haven’t been as regular as they have been during earlier points of the season. As a result, they’ve scored only one five-on-five goal over their last three games – Tanner Pearson’s tying marker versus Toronto – and have surrendered at least four goals in three of their last six games.
The team, though, remains among the more difficult to score on in the National Hockey League. They rank sixth with an average of 2.48 goals against per game, though that’s a number largely supported by an airtight penalty kill that has killed off 46 of the last 48 shorthanded situations, dating back to a John Tavares goal on January 21. At 85.1%, that kill now ranks third in the league.
But that five-on-five checking play could be cleaned up, which Brown also noted to Frozen Royalty’s Gann Matsuda in a story written earlier this week. Brown said to Matsuda that “I feel like [the defensive breakdowns were] really evident coming off our break,” and the numbers back up that assertion in a broad sense. Since the bye week, Los Angeles has allowed 2.8 goals per game, though that number does come with a disclaimer that two goals scored against came in three-on-three overtime, where scoring is much more frequent.
Interestingly, Darryl Sutter has cited the team’s checking in explaining a factor behind the Kings’ dominant three-on-three overtime winning percentage, which at .786 since the start of the 2015-16 season is the best in the NHL over that span. Since the bye, the Kings are 0-2 in overtime, have been scored on more frequently in all situations than earlier in the season, and are currently having trouble scoring in five-on-five play. This is all interconnected, according to Brown.
“I think a lot of [our lack of scoring five-on-five] starts, quite honestly, with our defensive side of the puck,” he said. “We haven’t been nearly as good checking, so kind of one goes with the other. If we’re really good checking we have five, six more opportunities a game, right? And you kind of spread that out, we haven’t been great checking for a few weeks now. So you’re getting fewer chances per game and you look at when we’re playing really well, we’re not giving up much and as a result we have the puck in the O-zone a lot more.”To counter this trend, which will keep the team out of the playoffs if not corrected, the team will look to boost its all-around play by moving Adrian Kempe up to play with Brown and Trevor Lewis after the rookie’s excellent all-around game on Saturday, in which he recorded two assists and was dangerous in creating scoring opportunities during both shorthanded play and in five-on-five situations.
“Kempe brings a lot of speed up the middle, which is, I think, a challenge for teams when you have guys that can skate,” Brown said. “I mean, look at our other two centers, they can get up the ice pretty well. So it’s on me and Lewie to make plays along the wall and get him the puck kind of underneath. He’s a young guy but he thinks the game really well, so me and Lewie have got to just put our work boots. I think last game, it was exactly what we wanted. really. With him and the speed and skill in the middle and me and Lewie, we do all the work getting the puck and let him kind of do his thing.”
Chasing down pucks, vying for supremacy along the boards and creating space for teammates is part of Brown’s repertoire, one that doesn’t necessarily change based on the players he’s aligned with.
“I think regardless of who I’m playing with in the middle, my role is pretty defined and I’d say the same thing goes for Lew,” he said. “We both kind of go up and down the lineup depending on where we’re needed and with a younger guy it’s just important that we make those plays going in and coming out of our zone.”
Should the Kings spend less time in their zone against the Nashville Predators tonight and utilize better speed exiting it, they’ll set themselves up for a greater percentage of the scoring chances. And, perhaps, a 20-year-old rookie may have his first NHL goal.