As the points rack up, the Kings are thriving behind a team-wide defensive buy-in

The LA Kings enter this fine Sunday on a nine-game point streak.

Taking out Game 1 of that stretch – the shootout win over Winnipeg – the Kings have allowed no more than two goals during the run of play, sans shootouts, throughout their last eight. Since March 1, the Kings are the NHL’s only team allowing fewer than two goals against per game. Ironically enough, ranking second and third on that list are Nashville and Vancouver, the only teams to take two points from the Kings throughout the 7-0-2 stretch they’re currently on.

“That’s what you’re aiming for, two goals or less, that’s pretty impressive in that amount of games,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “We’ve got to keep that up, that’s how you win in playoffs and that’s where we want to get, is obviously to the playoffs and make a statement in it and not lose in the first round this year. Playing like this is going to help us a lot.”

For the Kings, it’s certainly a massive change from where the team was at earlier in the season.

If you go month-by-month, the Kings ranked no better than 17th in terms of goals allowed per game, until March.

October – 3.82 (27)
November – 3.43 (21)
December – 3.13 (17)
January – 3.46 (25)
February – 3.11 (17)
March – 1.75 (1)

They ranked no lower than 3.11 goals allowed per game in a single month and that was February. In three of the four months entering February, the Kings were either the worst or second-worst team, among teams currently in a playoff position, in terms of goals allowed per game. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, when looking at those figures, that March has been the most successful month of hockey for the Kings, thus far. With a winning percentage of .875, no team across the league has been better as we hit Day 19.

“That’s the way that we’ve got to win games,” Doughty added. “We’re not a high-powered offense – yes we’re better on offense – but we’ve still got to play good defense to win games and our goalies have both played great too.”

So, what’s changed?

It starts with buy-in. At least that’s the buzzword we’ve heard most frequently around the locker room over the last week or so, as this stretch of games has continued and extended. “Buy-in” is a funny phease, because it kind of implies that the team was actively fighting against it earlier on and I don’t think that was exactly the case. It just wasn’t there consistently, game over game, and December was the perfect example.

Seven times, the Kings held their opposition to two goals or fewer. There’s also a five and two sixes in there. When the Kings did commit to that approach, results were evident. Same can be said when it got away from them. Speaking with players around the room, that defensive buy-in is showing up right now and the proof is in the pudding.

Alex Edler – I think it always starts with playing solid defensively and then you build your game from there. You always kind of find your way as the season goes on and I think we’ve done that. We’ve realized how we have to play to be successful.

Blake Lizotte – I think it’s just trusting each other and trusting our system. The whole team is starting to come around fully, buying in, and areas where we were loose earlier in the year we’ve now tightened up. I think, for the most part, everyone’s on the same page defensively.

Trevor Moore – I think it’s just the buy-in from everyone. Not allowing odd-man rushes, making it hard for them to get their goals and then obviously good goaltending. I don’t know about the [numbers behind] the scoring chances or odd-man rushes, but it seems like we haven’t given up much and we definitely gave up more at the beginning of the year.

From the coaching perspective, McLellan has seen that buy-in first hand and he’s appreciated it.

Aligning pretty well with what Doughty said earlier, as the Kings move forward to what everyone hopes and expects will be a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the need to continue to play that way will be magnified.

“Yes, we do,” McLellan said when asked if he’s seeing that defensive buy-in right now. “On both sides, the more they buy into doing it properly on the defensive side, it opens up offensive opportunities. Sometimes you get one or two lines, but lately, we’ve been getting it teamwide. All the defensemen, the forwards, doing the selfless things that need to be done to win. That has to continue on, it’s going to be magnified as we move forward.”

When asked about the defensive play over the course of the larger run, McLellan highlighted three areas that he believes are likely showing up when you hold teams to two or fewer goals – goaltending, penalty killing and commitment from all four lines and all three pairings.

In terms of goaltending, that’s been apparent.

Since the Kings acquired goaltender Joonas Korpisalo from Columbus, creating a tandem with Pheonix Copley, the Kings lead the league in save percentage, with a .931 clip so far during the month of March. Both Copley and Korpisalo have been accustomed to starting larger chunks of games this season. Prior to being held out of action for trade-related reasons, Korpisalo was the goaltender of record in 10 of 14 games with the Blue Jackets. Copley’s run was even longer, starting 25 of 35 games from the time he was recalled from AHL-Ontario to the time Korpisalo was acquired.

Since that day, the goaltenders have alternated starts, in what has been the best type of rotation. Neither goaltender is coming out due to poor play, but rather both are commanding the net with solid to stellar play. McLellan indicated that the rotation is the plan today, though it could always change. He praised both for not only upping their play during games but also during practices. It’s kept both players sharp and provided additional challenges for those around them, which has benefitted the team’s overall play.

Looking at the penalty kill, it’s a unit that’s been improving for a while.

From October through December, the Kings ranked fifth-to-last in the NHL on the penalty kill. They fell even a spot further when evaluating net penalty kill, which factors in shorthanded goals. The Kings improved, however, ranking 12th in January and 10th in February. Though they’ve slipped slightly to 18th here in March, when you look over the course of the 2023 portion of the season, the Kings are tied for fourth in the NHL in terms of shorthanded goal differential, meaning SHG for minus PPG against. Improving from a bottom-five unit to one in the middle to upper third of the league has been impactful in limiting the goals against.

While goaltending and penalty killing are more isolated units, the third bullet McLellan listed – a full lineup commitment – is harder to segment. It requires everyone, top to bottom, to be bought in and on the same page. Throughout the month, there isn’t a singular pairing or line that’s responsible for more than their share. No Kings player has been on the ice for more than four goals against over the course of the eight games and no Kings player who has played in at least half of the game is over 2.5 goals against per/60.

As a group, the Kings have limited both shots and chances against as effectively as any team in the NHL. During the month of March, the Kings are a top-five squad in the NHL in both shot attempts and shots on goal against per/60, ranking second in the league behind Carolina at a fraction under 25 in the SOG category. The Kings also rank in the top five in high-danger chances against in that span, limiting the quality as well as they’ve limited the quantity. All the while, they’ve been a top-five team in chances for, with offensive opportunities coming, but not at the expense of defense. The Kings aren’t cheating for their looks and that’s been a pleasing sign for the staff.

With 12 games remaining, maintaining that style of play for the bulk of the season will be key, especially as the playoffs draw nearer. As Doughty said, that’s how the game is played come the postseason and that’s where the Kings want to be. With six games to come against the teams the Kings are fighting with for spots in the Pacific Division, that playoff test begins tomorrow against Calgary.

Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

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