LOS ANGELES — After a blazing hot 12-3-0 start to the season, followed by a stretch where they lost seven out of eight games, the Los Angeles Kings are now in a 4-0-1 stretch heading into St. Louis, where they will skate on December 16 against the Blues, who trail the Kings by two points in the Western Conference standings going into action on December 15.
This season, the Kings have won games primarily on the strength of their defense and the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, who is in the top five of all major goaltending statistics as of this writing.
Penalty-killing has been a big part of that defensive effort, as the Kings are ranked fourth in the National Hockey League, with an 86.0 percent rating.
But as Kings head coach Terry Murray often says, while penalty-killing can lose you a game, the power play can win it for your team, and, so far this season, the Kings’ power play has been anything but powerful.
Indeed, the Kings have struggled mightily with the man advantage since day one of the 2010-11 season, scoring just 17 goals on 113 power play opportunities, good for a very poor 15.0 percent rating (ranked 24th in the league), and there seems to be no end in sight for their power play woes, even with the Kings scoring three power play goals in their last three games.
While that may appear to be a positive sign, it took the Kings 17 chances with the man advantage to accomplish that feat—a still poor 17.6 percent rating.
“We’ve been working really hard on our power play in practice,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’ve been watching a lot of video. We’ve been doing a lot of the right things, they just aren’t going in for us.”
“It’s been a struggle for us all year,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown, who plays on the Kings’ second power play unit. “We’ve got to work on it and figure it out.”
“Tonight, we had some good chances,” added Brown following the Kings’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center in Los Angeles on December 11. “[Wild goaltender Jose] Theodore played well for them on the penalty-kill, but we had a lot of power plays where we didn’t even get set up.”
In that game, the Kings managed to score one power play goal, but that came on nine opportunities with the man advantage, including a four-minute power play in which they managed to record just one shot on goal.
“We had a nice goal on the power play tonight, but, in a game like tonight, our power play should win us the game with that many opportunities,” Brown lamented. “It’s something that’s a work in progress. You can’t dwell on it now. It’s done. You just have to be prepared to be better in Detroit [their next opponent on December 13].”
The Kings won that game in Detroit decisively, 5-0. But that score is entirely misleading because it took a Herculean effort by Quick, who stopped 51 shots—26 just in the second period and 38 after two periods, to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
Defenseman Jack Johnson scored a power play goal in the third period, giving the Kings one power play goal on two opportunities in the game, a fifty percent rating. But to say that the Kings are showing improvement with the man advantage after that would be premature.
The Kings employ a simple power play scheme: get the puck to the top of their five-man umbrella, blast shots from the point with traffic in front, and go after rebound chances.
“Some of the best power plays are just that—get it to the point and hammer it,” Brown explained. “The key to that is getting it to the net with the traffic there.”
But the Kings are having a boatload of trouble getting pucks to the net from up top, as Doughty and Johnson, along with centers Anze Kopitar and Jarret Stoll—all play at or near the top of the umbrella—have struggled to get shots or have passed up shooting opportunities in favor of making the extra pass.
After the Kings picked apart the Vancouver Canucks with their power play during the first three games of their playoff series last season, the Canucks made some adjustments on their penalty-kill, pressuring the point men on the power play, taking away their time and space, not to mention, the shooting lanes.
That proved to be the turning point in the series for the Canucks, who won the series, 4-2.
Other teams have picked up on that and the Kings are seeing those very same tactics from penalty-killers in every game, and are struggling to adapt.
“Part of it changes with the penalty-killers,” said Murray. “They put a lot of pressure on and take away those lanes pretty well.”
Despite the tactics used by penalty-killers, Murray firmly believes in his simple approach to the power play.
“In most situations, I’d like to see it come back up top in the umbrella and put a lot of pucks to the net,” he stressed. “You can really wear the penalty-killers down. They’re limited in the number of guys they’re using on the penalty-kill.”
“If you simply get pucks to the top in the umbrella and get pucks to the net with a lot of traffic and make them battle and compete, you’ll get a lucky break, you do the right thing, you find those pucks and you score a big goal,” he added.
On one power play during their overtime loss to Minnesota on December 11, the Kings moved the puck around and had lots of movement of their players around the Minnesota zone, which resulted in an easy, tap-in goal by left wing Ryan Smyth.
Despite the fact that one of the Wild penalty-killers had lost his stick, the Kings’ movement on the play had the penalty-killers chasing the play throughout—a look not seen from the Kings on the power play all season.
But don’t expect Murray to make any changes to his power play scheme.
“We’re looking to pass it into the net, like we did on that one goal, which looks great,” said Murray. “But it’s the part of the penalty-kill and special teams that teams talk about all the time. That’s the one they’re focused on, that back door, those passes through the seam.”
“But up top—you’re shooting the puck and you get the penalty-killers turning around and facing their goaltender, they’re trying to find pucks,” added Murray. “They’re just ordinary players now. They’re not special penalty-killers. They’re just ordinary guys out there, standing around, trying to find pucks, and it’s very hard to do.”
But it has been the penalty-killers making the Kings’ power play look ordinary so far, not the other way around, and with Murray firmly believing in his power play scheme, the players must do more and work harder to create time and space to get more shots on goal.
“All five or ten players on the power play are capable of making plays,” said Brown. “I think it’s about the right decision-making. Sometimes, we’re making the difficult play when there’s an easier play available. Maybe it’s as simple as getting it to the top and getting the shots through from the point with net traffic.”
“It’s five guys that are out there,” said Murray. “It’s a group that has to recover pucks, they have to make the plays, they have to do the right things with the puck and get it to the right place.”
The problem with Murray’s steadfast belief in his power play scheme is that the Kings are entirely predictable when they have the man advantage. Everyone knows that they want Kopitar to get the puck on the half-wall, and when the Kings get traffic in front of the opposing goaltender, they want Kopitar to feed Doughty, Stoll or Johnson for a point shot, preferably a one-timer.
Under that scheme, there is almost no movement by the Kings’ players on the power play. Instead, they remain mostly stationary, waiting for a pass or a shot to go to the net.
As stated earlier, entirely predictable.
To be sure, the Kings’ players at the top of their power play umbrella need to step it up and get more pucks to the net. But perhaps the time has come for the Kings to tweak their power play just a little. Nothing major…a little twist here and there, maybe a different look every once in awhile, to keep penalty-killers honest?
If you listen to Murray, that will not happen anytime soon. But even he knows that unless his team solves their power play problems soon, his team’s playoff chances, let alone the expected improvement over last season, could begin to disappear quickly, especially in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.
“If you take a look at our power play, it’s dropping [in the league rankings], percentage-wise,” he lamented. “[The power play] has to be good whenever you’re playing in this league, if you’re going to be a good hockey club. We have to find a way to get it done.”
“Players on the power play need to take responsibility for it, to make the right plays out there.”