Kings-Ducks: Watch the Game of Zones

I was wrong.

The Los Angeles Kings-Anaheim Ducks series hasn’t gone as predicted. I thought Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick would stay hot. Nope. I thought the Ducks would suffer through goaltending strife. There’s been strife, but it’s the Kings who have suffered.

In Game Four, after Anaheim built a 2-0 lead in the first period, Los Angeles dominated shot attempts (48-19), shots (19-3), and scoring chances (9-3) in the last 40 minutes but came up empty. Strong goaltending from John Gibson (and Ryan Getzlaf) was one of the reasons.

Another culprit? The Ducks sat back, content with their lead. So we shouldn’t be too encouraged by LA’s late stranglehold; yes, they certainly played better, but to some degree, their neighbors to the south allowed it.

When I say Anaheim sat back, I mean specifically that they employed an effective neutral zone trap (if you’re not very familiar with the trap, read this). Here’s one of many examples from Saturday night:

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Once it’s clear that Trevor Lewis has control of the puck, one of the Ducks breaks off from pressuring and heads for the neutral zone, leaving Jakob Silfverberg as the lone forechecker. Silfverberg cuts Lewis off from the middle, forcing him toward the boards. Andrew Cogliano joins his teammate, limiting Lewis’s options. Lewis chooses an inefficient long passor dump in, as that’s an awful passfor Dwight King. Regardless, the result’s a turnover.

So what does all this mean for the rest of the series?

Score the First Goal

Just as Anaheim went into a defensive shell with a lead, so did Los Angeles in Game Two. Bruce Boudreau and Darryl Sutter appear to be favoring the strategy of limiting the opposition’s chances over the risk of trading chances.

Power Through the Trap

LA blew four power plays in Game Fouramong them, a couple in the first period that would’ve given them the all-important lead. One way to beat the trap is to take advantage of your opportunites when not facing it.

On the other hand, the Ducks scored its second goal because of a Tanner Pearson offensive zone penalty. It’s a broken record with the Kings, who struggled with discipline all year (they were 28th in times shorthanded in the NHL). Their penalty killing wasn’t very strong with Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, and it’s not better without them.

If Game Four’s storyline was all too familiar, it’s because the same thing happened two nights before. Los Angeles had a decent even strength start, which was derailed by a Trevor Lewis offensive zone penalty. Corey Perry cashed in and Anaheim began imposing its defensive will.

Move the Puck Sharply

Crisp puck movement from the defense is an effective reply to any type of trap. As most have noticed, LA hasn’t been at its best in this area earlier in the series. Anaheim’s quick forechecking deserves some credit, but Los Angeles has also made a number of unforced errors. Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez will have to be at their most creative and efficient. However, shoddy Southern California ice will be another obstacle.

With puck moving in mind, I think Brayden McNabb should replace Jeff Schultz, but it’s probably not going to happen. Understandably, the Kings believe that the more experienced and defensively-minded Schultz is a better complement for Voynov and the penalty kill. Another knock on McNabb is his poor skating.

That said, McNabb is no slower than Schultz, just about as big and more physical, and far better with the puck. In that way, he may be able to help lighten the struggling Voynov’s load (as pairing Doughty with another puck-moving defenseman has helped). Much like Regehr, Schultz moves the puck as if he’s painting by numbers.

It’s a question of lesser evils: Neither Schultz or McNabb make up for Mitchell’s absence.

Last Change

With two of three at the Honda Center, Boudreau will try to exert an upper hand with last change. Based on previous home usage, look for him to throw Getzlaf at Schultz-Voynov more and keep Saku Koivu away from Kopitar.

Rook Takes Kings?

That was the Los Angeles Times headline from Gibson’s postseason debut. As impressive as the 20-year-old was this one game, for every Patrick Roy, there’s dozens of rookie netminders who are eventually exposed on this biggest of stages.

At the opposite end, Quick’s play has tapered off. Does he answer the challenge of the young American?

Stats courtesy of Extra Skater & nickc79 of Jewels from the Crown