(This article was originally published by me as a guest author at the site called “Surly and Scribe”)
With sticks, dummy. Big sticks. But, that would be too much like Ryane Clowe, so we’re gonna need strategy instead. Since the Sharks taught us that little things can be a turning point in a game, and since McSorely taught us that a little thing can be a turning point in an entire series, the Kings need to be more disciplined, and be smarter hockey players, than ever before. We’re not gonna go over stats and numbers, here. I just want to point out a few critical areas where I think the Kings could improve. For me, these could very well be the keys to the series.
Goaltending: Not in the traditional sense. Quick has been a better goalie than Luongo all this year, but Luongo has been the better playoff performer over history. I think as far as actually stopping pucks, it’s a wash. My concerns are with the other ways Jonathan Quick’s play impacts the game.
First, behind the net: Quick is bad at exchanges and passes. At his best he confuses our own guys and creates hesitation, and at worst it’s a dead-bang giveaway. I want him to simply stop the ring-arounds and tee the damn thing up. Get it stopped, get it off the boards, and leave it there. If he wants to draw a penalty, or make a pick, he could simply stand a half-step from the back of the net with his free hand on top of the cage for “balance,” as if to steady himself. Doing that would wall off at least half the distance to the boards, and would also help our defenseman by limiting the forechecker to a predictable angle of attack.
Second, Quick freezes the puck too much. It is as if he thinks that it is always best to take a faceoff, and slow the tempo. He covers almost everything that comes near him, even slow rollers when there is room and time to simply direct it aside. Of course, sometimes we do need to slow the game down from a run-and-gun mentality, but against the Canucks this is exactly the wrong thing for the goalie to do, and here is why; Vigneault damn near ALWAYS uses his defensive lines in D-zone draws, and his offensive lines to take O-zone draws.
Sutter changes lines according to matchups and rotation, but Vigneault changes lines according to starting zone. Vigneault is on record in a recent interview saying that his checkers are supposed to get the puck, get it out of their zone and get in our zone for a faceoff. If Quick is holding onto loose pucks, it is giving them just what they want, offensive zone draws for the Sedin or Kesler lines. The Kings can use this tendency against them, however. And that brings us to the next area of focus…
Defensive assignments: The tandems stay the same, Doughty/Scuderi, Voynov/Mitchell, Martinez/Greene. Against past teams, Doughty and Scuderi were sent out as the shutdown choice regardless of which line we have on and where the faceoff takes place. Lately, Sutter has been using Voynov/Mitchell in place of Doughty/Scuderi for offensive zone starts when Kopi is out there. At home, this is “safe”, but on the road this is a gamble, because the other coach can see Voynov coming on the ice and exploit the matchup with his top scorers. Against Vancouver, though, when Kopi takes an O-zone faceoff, we can more freely use Voynov because we know Vigneault will have a defensive line out there to take the draw. If they want to change after the draw to put in the Sedins or Kesler, we will have time to change our defensemen, too. More often, we can start with our best playmaking defenseman; Voynov.
Puck Management: Not just pass to pass, or play to play, or shift to shift. The Kings need to learn how to thwart the other team based on score and clock. For example, we have seen that it is pointless to gain a lead if you then surrender the tempo to the opponent’s preferred pace.
Locking down a game is accomplished by the style of play taken in all zones of the ice. I am not saying back off, I am not saying we don’t continue to attack, don’t get me wrong. But with a lead, we don’t make drop passes near any blue line, we don’t just blindly flip it out of our zone to center ice, and we don’t just dump it in from center. We hold the puck. We go D-to-D and make methodical breakouts. Forget the “quick-ups” unless it is wide open, and even if you do get a rush going, when you have a lead you need to prolong the containment attitude. We rush it in, but then stop up at the top of the circles and dump it softly cross-corner for retrieval and possession. If they shoot, flip shots more likely to get through traffic and make rebounds are much safer than telegraphed wind-up shots. We need to cycle low and hold the blue line, but we only go low-to-high when we’ve drawn two defenders to the half-wall and the point is open for a soft carom pass. We can force faceoffs in their D-zone, but only after we’ve cycled and killed the clock. We resist faceoffs and puck-freezes in our zone especially, but we also avoid offsides, too, so we don’t give them time to regroup. We just want the clock to keep ticking, slow and steady, while we dictate the pace of play. Play with purpose; our purpose.
Finally, a little psychological warfare wouldn’t hurt. I wish our answer to the “green men,” although from the tightness of those outfits the term “men” is barely proven correct, should be this: Judges’ scorecards. Like they have in Diving meets. What if the entire audience had individual judges cards, and when one of the Sedins collapsed in near-death anguish from a vicious nudge or mild chafing, everyone in the audience held up their scorecard? The Kings could distribute 18,118 pre-printed pieces of paper with scores ranging from, say, 8.1 to 8.6, for variety’s sake. Think about it; what if every time some Vancouver limp-dick fell to the ice, the whole crowd held up their scores? It would be an instant classic. It would be a question for the Canucks in interviews. It would say what everybody is thinking, and raise an issue without creating a scapegoat to motivate them.
This series will be a battle requiring the Kings to be their best. Late this season, we have seen their best in every game, but some games that level of play was squandered by mental errors and plain old sloppy play. To beat the Canucks, which I know they can do, the Kings just need to be a steadier, wiser team. And they can be, I have no doubt.