Saturday, 14 June 2014

They Just Wouldn't Die

You may recognize this small arthropod from his supporting role in the Disney/Pixar collaboration known as Wall-E. As humanity fled the planet, they left behind their small robotic friend and he befriended the cockroach seen to the left named Hal. Hal survives being squished twice, a reference to the cockroach's ability to survive most anything. Like Hal and his species, this year's Stanley Cup champions could be compared to nature's seemingly indestructible insect as well.

The Kings battled through 82 games like all other teams, but needed 26 additional games before they could relax. If you do the math, that's 108 NHL hockey games the Kings played, not including preseason exhibition games. In fact, over the last three years, the Kings have won the Stanley Cup twice and lost in the Western Conference Final. All told, they have played an NHL-most 310 games in the last three seasons in terms of regular season games and post-season games! Fatigue? Hardly!

The Kings proved again that all it takes is a ticket to the playoffs to make an impact. They were the lowest-scoring team of all the playoff-bound teams this season, finishing at 26th-best in the NHL, before becoming the highest-scoring team of the playoffs this year. They had the best advanced stats of all teams in terms of puck possession, and they finished the playoffs with the top-four scorers. This team showed that all they need is a shot at winning.

Part of that success was finding the right pieces to fit into Darryl Sutter's systems, and Dean Lombardi responded by adding Marian Gaborik while promoting Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson from Manchester up to the NHL squad. Once there, Sutter shifted lines around, putting Toffoli and Pearson with Jeff Carter, and pairing Anze Kopitar with Marian Gaborik. The result? Dustin Brown and Justin Wiliams were sent to the third line with Jarret Stoll where the depth of Los Angeles was unmatched. As a result, Williams brought home the Conn Smythe Trophy for his contributions, and the Kings won the Stanley Cup because they had three incredibly balanced scoring lines.

Along with incredible depth, the Kings literally beat you into submission. This team finishes every check on every play with every bit of gusto they can manage. No one takes a shift off when it comes to finishing a hit, and it takes its toll through a seven-game series. This is a trademark of Darryl Sutter-coached teams, and you could literally see players bracing for hits long before they came as the series wore on. Wearing down teams? That's the mark of Darryl Sutter, yet another testament to his coaching and how his team bought into the plan to administer as much punishment as they could to make their lives a whole lot easier.

For all the talk about LA's defence in 2012 not being experienced enough, the Kings showed that patience is key to a deadly attack as their defencemen found a killer instinct in these playoffs not seen since the lofty days of Coffey, Murphy, and Lidstrom in Detroit. Doughty led all scorers from the blueline with five goals and 13 assists while Jake Muzzin was fifth in scoring, but led all rearguards with six goals. Alec Martinez, with his Stanley Cup-winning goal, also had five goals while the normally offensive-minded Slava Voynov had two goals and seven assists in his playoff run. In other words, this defensive group started the rush most times, and often finished a rush by jumping into the play as well. If defence wins championships, the Kings showed their defence can score as well as their forwards can.

The one thing that suffers with defencemen jumping up into the play is the defensive play in their own zone. It was evident in their first two series that the Kings were getting caught way too often and not defensively-responsible enough to continue their offensive assault on opposing goalies. As a result, Jonathan Quick saw his GAA jump from his William Jennings-winning stat of 2.05 GAA to 2.69 GAA. The team also committed an average of 13 giveaways-per-game, nearly three more than they did in the regular season. As the playoffs rolled on, though, this team picked their opportunities rather than jumping into every play. As a result, they played defence well enough to survive the opening rounds against San Jose and Anaheim before asserting themselves in the Chicago and New York series. Call that maturity and smarts along with some good coaching.

The special teams also came alive in the post-season when the Kings needed them the most. During the regular season, the Kings were an abysmal 27th-best on the powerplay and 11th-best on the penalty kill. While the penalty kill didn't improve on its efficiency in the playoffs, the powerplay came to life with the additions of Gaborik and Toffoli. While they would finish sixth-best in the playoffs after some also-rans, the key was that the Kings' powerplay efficiency improved from 15.1% to 23.5%. That jump translated into a lot of goals with the man-advantage in the playoffs, and games are often won and lost on the special teams. Rarely does a team get a 10% boost in their powerplay after struggling all season, especially as poor as the Kings looked with the extra man during the first 70 games of the season.

Of course, it needs mentioning that the Kings didn't implode when the chips were down, and, in fact, became almost indestructible and uber-focused when they were in a hole. They were down 3-0 in the series against the Sharks and made history to rally from that deficit. They were down 3-2 in the series against the Ducks and rallied to win that series. They allowed the Blackhawks to rally from a 3-1 series deficit before going down 2-0, 3-2, and 4-3 in Game Seven, and then rallied in the third period before ending that series in overtime. Twice in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, they trailed 2-0 before rallying to win both games and the series. It was almost like this team needed to get kicked in the gut before they started to play hockey. And every time they got kicked, they ended up knocking another team out of the playoffs.

They have world-class talent up front in Carter, Kopitar, Gaborik, and Williams. They have exceptional youngsters in Pearson and Toffoli. They have solid checking forwards in Stoll, Mike Richards, Trevor Lewis, and Dwight King. They have an outstanding, young defensive unit in Doughty, Martinez, Muzzin, and Voynov, and none are over the age of 26. Of course, they have an all-world netminder in Jonathan Quick, and they have up-and-coming Martin Jones. Needless to say, these Los Angeles are going to be here for a while.

The rest of the NHL had better get used to this.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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