Practice 4/20 – Today’s Skate + First Line Play, Shotblocking & Impact, On-Bench Communication

Following yesterday’s win over Anaheim, the Kings were back on the ice today in El Segundo, in preparation for tomorrow’s matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Today’s skate was a relatively short one for the higher-minute players, with more of a flushed-out opportunity for those players and a bit longer of a skate for those who played lower minutes or did not play last night.

With that in mind, the Kings didn’t appear to take formal line rushes, but jersey colors suggest the following, when compared to the bigger picture of the last few practices –

Athanasiou – Kopitar – Kempe
Moore – Danault – Arvidsson
Iafallo – Lizotte – Brown
Lemieux – Kaliyev – Kupari – Grundstrom
Andersson – Byfield – Vilardi

Defensemen, again, did not appear to take rushes, so here is how those players have lined up over the last few days.

Edler – Roy
Moverare – Durzi
Maatta – Spence
Bjornfot – Stecher
Anderson – Strand

Quick / Petersen

Today’s combinations saw just one change in terms of jerseys, with Carl Grundstrom amongst those in white as opposed to purple. Same way the team lined up on Friday, but different from Monday, though the lineups in the games following those two days were identical. Read into that what you will, if at all.

Defenseman Mikey Anderson continues to progress towards a potential return to the lineup. Anderson has now skated in a regular, full-contact jersey over the last three days worth of practices, with McLellan indicating on Monday that he could be an option here over the last four games. Anderson is an important player, who brings with him an ability to log heavier minutes against high-level opposition, in a variety of situations. He also hasn’t played an NHL game in nearly seven weeks. One of many storylines to watch here as the push for the postseason continues.

Notes –

First Line Fury
Night one was a bit of a feeling out process for the newly assembled top line for the LA Kings.

With Andreas Athanasiou coming off of injury, he slotted in immediately into the spot on Anze Kopitar’s left, joining Adrian Kempe on that unit. Against Columbus, we saw signs of performance, though it didn’t fully click. Athanasiou had his legs under him for sure, but also that bit of the rust that generally comes from not playing in a over a month.

Last night, we saw those three players continue to click. Kempe scored in the second period, off a faceoff, but the unit as a whole was dangerous off the rush. Overall, it was 11 shot attempts for, compared to just three against. Those totals also included five scoring chances for, many of which appeared to, at least visually, come off of rush situations.

“It takes a game or two to get used to each other, and I’m sure Dubs felt a lot better last night than he did in the first game,” Kopitar said this morning. “Definitely some comfort level and hopefully we’ll build off of that and keep it going.”

What Athanasiou’s addition to that line has done is inject a bit of additional pace into the group.

Kempe is one of the league’s best skaters, as is Athanasiou. Now, both of those players are on the same line, giving the Kings a pair of speedsters who can both create with their legs individually, as well as within the context of the team. A combination that Todd McLellan believes is growing with now six periods together and a combination he’s planning to continue forward with.

“That combination should work, there’s a little bit more pace up on that line with Dubs,” McLellan said today. “You could see them starting to gel a little bit [last night], it’s only been two games, but we’d like to think that’s a line that we can keep running.”

Kopitar has certainly noticed the burners on either side of him.

He joked that he’s just trying to spring his wingers and then find a way to catch up to the play himself. More seriously, he discussed how the three of them have discussed certain plays that are available – off the rush and beyond – that can play to the strengths of those on the line, which involves getting Kempe and Athanasiou into space to use their assets to the best of their abilities. It’s putting everyone in a chance to be successful.

“You just try to spring them really….and then catchup,” he said, to a laugh. “There are a variety of plays that we’ve talked about, maybe in certain situations, and you definitely want to use both of their skating abilities. We all know it’s really good, so just try to put them in positions to skate around or get a couple of steps on the other team, playing to our strengths.”

A productive first line, no matter how you define production, is a big key to success in the games that follow.

Shot Blocking
Over the last two games, the Kings have blocked a combined 44 shots. The team blocked a season-high 26 shots in the 2-1 win over Columbus, followed up by another larger number, 18, yesterday against Anaheim. Per Bally Sports West, the 26 shots blocked were the most since the 2017-18 season, with that total surpassing the previous season-high of 24, reached on two separate occasions.

Entering these past three days, the Kings had blocked more than 18 shots just six times this season and just twice in the 2022 calendar year. It should be noted that all six of those games, as well as Saturday’s game versus Columbus, were all Kings victories. Five of those seven games were one-goal wins, with another, a 5-1 win over Edmonton, a one-goal game into the final minutes before the Kings scored three power-play goals in the late stages.

In that small-ish sample size, more shot blocks has equaled more Kings victories.

“The situation that we’re in, the desperate time that we’re facing right now, I think you’re seeing guys lay it on the line more frequently, finding ways to get into the shooting lanes,” McLellan said today. “That’s really important. They get feedback, especially on the penalty kill, in our penalty-kill meetings, a lot of times Trent Yawney will start it off by saying we can talk about positioning and where you need to go, but if you’re prepared to do these things, blocking shots, getting clears and winning faceoffs, that gives us a way better chance at success, they do get rewarded.”

McLellan called Edmonton defenseman Kris Russell the greatest shot blocker he’s ever coached.

“I don’t know how he stayed alive.”

Russell is a well-renowned shot blocker around the league, ranking inside the league’s top three in the category in every season from 2013-14 to 2017-18, with four of the league’s seven highest totals from 2013 through now. McLellan coached Russell for 2+ seasons in Edmonton, calling him “heads or tails above most” in that category.

There’s the other side of shot blocking, however, is that the more shots you are blocking, the more the puck is, in theory, being shot at your net. McLellan also referenced that point as well.

“Teams that block a lot of shots, it could be us over the last little bit, you have to be in your end to block a shot and that’s not a good thing either,” he added. “There are some negatives to a shot block stat, but for the most part, if you can be in the lane and distract the shooter to the point where you’ve just got to lay the puck back in, you can get a blocked shot for that as well.”

At this time of the year, the spotlight is that much brighter on things like shot blocking. As the Kings look to find victories any way they can get them, they’ll certainly take it.

On-Ice Communication

Todd McLellan last night had some great things to say about his second line, specifically regarding their on-ice play.

Today, he focused a bit on their off-the ice chemistry and communication, highlighting their behaviors on the bench in a positive light. Three different personalities in that setting, but three personalities that blend together well in an effort to fix things when they’re going wrong and continue them when they’re going right.

“Arvy is feisty, he doesn’t like to lose ice time when there are penalties or whatever, which is great,” McLellan said. “Phil is pretty cerebral, he’ll talk things through and he looks over the flock. Mooresy is energetic and he’s willing to talk and fix things, advance things. They communicate real well, they like playing together and they want to keep playing together. They have that going, but it does show their coaches or their teammates that they’re in it. There are other lines, when it’s not going well, one guy’s sitting over here, one over there, there’s not talk, no communication and we read that.”

Without naming other names, McLellan did compare them to other lines, potentially, who don’t always communicate in that way, as a line. That type of communication and togetherness is seen, and just another positive on along list of positives for that trio.

“It gives us an indication that you believe in your linemates, first of all, and it’s a sense of confidence,” McLellan said. “If you’re there talking things through, even if you’re debating a little bit, arguing, there’s nothing wrong with that, because you’re going to fix something that was wrong. But, if you’re just sitting there, staring up at the crowd, you’ve got no chance at success and we read that.”

Morning skate tomorrow, Insiders, before the penultimate home game of the season against Chicago in the evening!

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