Since the lockout of 04/05, the “new NHL”, for lack of a better term, has become more and more dominated by special teams play. Games are won, and lost, on the backs of power plays and penalty killing units. Such was the story today as the Flames stormed into Staples Center, fresh off of an embarrassing home ice loss to the Blackhawks, to soundly defeat the Kings 5-2. The Kings surrendered two power play goals and went scoreless with the man advantage. A shorthanded goal allowed on a junior hockey level breakdown in the third all but took the proverbial wind out of the Kings’ sails.
One wouldn’t have been hard pressed to crack open an early beer only 13 seconds into the game as Jarome Iginla snapped a seemingly innocent wrister from just outside the hash marks to beat Quick. However, to give the young netminder credit, Quick kept the score at only 1-0 throughout the remainder of the first as the Kings struggled to clear the zone, create crisp breakouts, and sustain anything resembling offensive zone pressure. The second period saw a turnaround for the Kings, with Doughty and Frolov netting goals less than a minute apart to give the Kings a 2-1 lead. The team seemed to wake up, as if awoken from a hangover many of the Kings’ faithful are sure to have tomorrow, but the momentum was short-lived. Brown and Handzus took a penalty each less than a minute apart to give the Flames a 5 on 3 power play, in which they promptly tied up the scoreboard. The second period ended as somewhat of a chess match after that point, with both Terry Murray and Brent Sutter matching different lines and both teams locking up the neutral zone.
Any hope for a bounce back win was quickly extinguished for the Kings early into the third. The Kings failed to create any kind of puck movement on their second power play of the night and the puck was tipped back toward center ice. After some undeniably horrid communication between Doughty and Kopitar, the Flames managed to create a cycle in the Kings’ zone, despite being a man down, and found a wide open Langkow streaking down the hash marks for the short handed goal. One could almost hear the pained sigh from Staples as the Kings continued to play sloppily throughout the third, surrendering two more goals before the merciful buzzer finally rang.
It’s hard to justify calling a late November game at home a “must win” yet this writer isn’t so sure. A western Canada swing awaits the Kings next, after just getting off a five game southern road trip only a week prior. This was a significant win for the Flames in the standings, as they sat nipping at the Kings’ heels for fourth in the western conference before today. Now both teams are tied, despite the Kings having played two more games. Every game is important, especially in the ultra-competitive western conference this season. This four point shift between two conference rivals may or may not end up being the deciding factor in a Kings’ playoff birth. However, the playoffs are still far off, and quite frankly, we have more pressing issues at the moment.
Jonathan Quick, who many Kings’ fans believed to be the answer in net going into this season, has been about as up and down this year as, well, the team itself. Iginla’s harmless wrist shot 13 seconds into the first period set a tone to the game that the Kings simply could not overcome. Now was it all Quick’s fault? Of course not. In fact, as already noted, he was the major reason the Kings didn’t leave the first period down 3-0 instead of 1-0. Nonetheless, one must stop and think about the mental state of a goaltender, often accused of lack of concentration, that is beat by a soft, perimeter shot only 13 seconds into a game. I am, by no means, an advocate of shipping the kid off to the ECHL after one soft goal, because Quick has shown stretches of poise and athleticism that sold many Kings’ fans on his talent merely a season ago. What is inescapable, however, is that soft goals are not acceptable to a team that expects to make the playoffs. And with Jonathan Bernier playing nearly lights out down in the AHL, I am almost assured that Lombardi’s patience is wearing thin.
Special teams have haunted the Kings ever since their home opener against Phoenix. Despite stretches of power play aptitude, mainly with Ryan Smyth circling the crease like a hungry great white, the Kings’ continue to struggle with the man advantage. Much more so could be said about the Kings’ abhorrent penalty kill, which still sits at the bottom of the league. Much has been said about the Kings focus on 5 on 5 play coming into this season, in which they have admittedly and dramatically improved. However, it seems to have come at a cost of their often stellar special teams play last season. Such a trade off is familiar news to the Kings, as they went from one of the better goal scoring teams in the league in 07/08 to one of the worst only a season later, after Murray stressed defensive play over the offseason. There is a yin and yang in all facets of hockey, and the Kings can’t quite seem to balance the two at this point.
Much can be said about the Kings’ lack of Smyth, their depth, and Ivanans’s presence in any type of line not labeled “unemployment.” I, for one, am willing to be patient, but cautiously so. The season is long and the Kings have a lot of fight left in them, but things aren’t going to get any easier. Only time will tell whether or not this team is ready to be crowned, or too busy polishing the scepters.