The great teams have a zone. It is a unique style that distinguishes them, and once they find it, it can be like a death grip applied series after series.
The old Montreal Canadiens trademark was to come at you in waves, led by Guy Lafleur down the right side and a defence that controlled the game. And, of course, Ken Dryden. The vintage Edmonton Oilers would run off six consecutive shifts with centremen named Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier, and by the time they were done, so were you.
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Detroit pinned you in your own zone with increasing, incremental pressure contained at the blue line by Nicklas Lidstrom, its possession game applying pressure so constant that the inertia inevitably lit the lamp.
And this spring, we have the Los Angeles Kings, holders of a style that is far less exciting — but no less effective — than all of the above. Theirs is more a rope-a-dope. Score first, then may the shot clock be damned. They’ll take a 2-1 win and a 35-18 shots deficit all springtime long.
In 2012 L.A. forged the most dominant Stanley Cup run in modern NHL history, going 16-4 in winning its first-ever Cup. The Kings’ low slot was impenetrable, and Jonathan Quick played like a Grant Fuhr-Vladislav Tretiak hybrid.
Suddenly, they’ve recaptured that groove. In Game 2 of the Pacific Division final, Anaheim outshot the Kings 37-17 but had only a few tepid scoring chances in the latter half of the game. They are one game from being alligator-rolled by the Kings, that moment in the fight when it’s all over but the thrashing.
How do the Ducks get out of the vice? We tracked down two Western Conference coaches who know the Kings well, plus the legendary Scotty Bowman, to try and find out. Coaches whose teams aren’t in the playoffs are not fond of critiquing the clubs of coaches who are still playing, so we offered anonymity for honesty. Scotty’s quotes are labeled.
Here’s what they said:
Coach A: “The goalie is the most competitive player on their team. And the players play for the goalie, so chemistry is there.”
Scotty Bowman: “What people have to realize is, they’ve played nine games in the playoffs, and only three of them have been at home. When you win four road games in a series-and-a-half, that’s when you know the goaltending is good.”
So what is Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau telling his Ducks heading into Game 3 Thursday night?
Coach B: “You have to look for second chances. L.A. will eliminate the ‘A’ first chances. But it’s the one that takes Quick out of sync, the rebound that gets him out of the net. It’s the re-direct and then the next shot that are important. You have to get some of those ‘next shots.’
“They are so well constructed, but it starts with Quick. You could see in the first few games with San Jose, when he’s not on his game, the whole structure crumbles. The huge turn in that series was when Quick went over to the bench, and they were down 7-1 or whatever, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this guys.’ That was the turning point.”
“Well constructed” is a recurring theme when you talk to opposing coaches about the Kings.
Coach A: “Their group of D are underrated as far as exiting the puck. Muzzin, Martinez, Doughty, Voynov, even Mitchell, really can move the puck out of zone. You require precision on forecheck to create turnovers. They’re huge and have plenty of skill to move puck.”
Bowman: “Darryl’s defences are always underrated. He always ends up with three lefts and three rights, and they control the game. Doughty is so good, but their other guys move the puck so well also.”
The analogy one coach used was that the Kings are akin to a good baseball team: an all-star catcher (Quick), awesome starting pitching (the four centres), and a middle infield and centrefielder who controls the rest of the game (the defence).
Coach A: “(Anze) Kopitar, (Jeff) Carter, (Jarrett) Stoll, (Mike) Richards. Such skill and moxy. Their hockey savvy is second to none. There is no break in this group. No breather. Carter has matured; he’s really competitive now. Richards is a playoff guy who has dialed it up. They wear you down over the course of the game.”
Coach B: “Kopitar is maybe the most underrated player in the league, only because some people in the East don’t stay up late to watch him play. He’s a really, really good player. Richards is a playoff-style player, Stoll has a real purpose… it’s such a well-constructed team. From the goaltending to a solid defence corps, then look at centre ice. Kopitar, Stoll, Richards… you can line any of them up against Getzlaf and say, ‘I’m OK with this matchup.’”
In the end, however, no one is unbeatable. Even if the Kings have looked that way since about Game 5 of Round 1.
Coach B: “The teams that give them trouble are non-physical teams. A Dallas, a Chicago, who can use speed. Avoid the physical battles.”