Kings’ McLellan Enthusiastic About Intensity Ahead of Lightning Game

Progress is sometimes hard to see if a team is losing. As the losses pile up, negativity sets in. Not so with the Los Angeles Kings, who are coming off an intense 2-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.

The Kings’ Silver Is Not Really a Shade of Gray

Coach Todd McLellan had his rose-colored glasses on afterward, while those who felt the pain of the loss saw only gray.

“It’s probably one of the better played losses that I’ve experienced,” McLellan told Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider. “The team played well. We played against a team that doesn’t give up much, plays at a very fast pace and I thought we played right there with them the whole night. A little puck luck around the net and it could’ve been a different story, but there’s no need to hang our heads as we walk out of this building. Reload, get some rest. We’re going to play a pretty good team on Tuesday.”

Todd McLellan
Kings head coach Todd McLellan (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

The pretty-good teams are everywhere in the NHL and the Tampa Bay Lightning (27-14-4, 58 points) are that, or more. They are lodged in second place in the Atlantic Division, looking up at the Boston Bruins (27-8-11, 65). More on the Lightning a little later.

Green Throwback Jerseys Have Kings Seeing Red

Those Whalers, oops, Hurricanes, wearing Hartford’s green, blue and white throwback jerseys Saturday were a handful. They put the handcuffs on the Kings’ goal-scorers. Carolina (27-16-2, 56 points, fourth place in the Metropolitan Division) held a 9-2 advantage in shots through the first seven minutes and it seemed like it was going to be a looooong night.

As it turned out, the Kings (18-25-4, 40 points, seventh place in the Pacific Division) outshot the hosts 41-29, not that it mattered on the scoreboard. James Reimer stopped every attempt, including an Austin Wagner breakaway, and now has three shutouts in 17 starts.

James Reimer Carolina Hurricanes
James Reimer, Carolina Hurricanes. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Here’s how Robyn Pennington of SB Nation described Reimer’s performance on her site:

“Somehow, James Reimer managed to be absolutely perfect and be in perfect position every single time. Even when he was heavily screened, the game of inches favored him,”

Robyn Pennington, SB Nation.

Pennington called Los Angeles’ loss in Raleigh frustrating.

One thing for the Kings faithful to remember — before the ‘whale’ of a loss fades — it was a 1-0 game until an empty-netter with four seconds to go. The Hurricanes’ first-period goal was a great offensive play — the bing-bing-bing kind that goalies can only stop if they’re a licensed magician.

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The Hurricanes were fortunate to get a goal after an icing non-call. They also scored on an empty-netter with four seconds left in the game for the 2-0 final.

It’s not so much the three-pass play itself (skilled goals against are going to happen) as much as how it developed. Nino Niederreiter’s goal was the result of a hustle play by Sebastian Aho, who beat Los Angeles defenders to the puck on what would otherwise have been an icing call. Kings goalie Jack Campbell had his hand raised to signal as much and the defensemen didn’t hurry back in time.

At the other end, the no-goal effort alluded to before was not from a lack of trying. Ten Kings players had multiple shots, led by Drew Doughty, Adrian Kempe, Alex Iafallo and Wagner with five each.

Closing Flurry Nearly Tied It Up Vs. Carolina

Doughty’s slapshot from the right point with 12 seconds left hit the goalpost past Reimer. Seventeen seconds earlier, Jeff Carter took his lumps, getting knocked down in front while desperately axing away at the puck after Iafallo’s tip of a Doughty shot from the left point got through to Reimer’s pads.

In simpler words, this game was close; closer, for sure, than the 2-0 final suggests. That’s part of the reason why optimism abounds in McLellan’s mind:

“If I’m a fan, I’m happy that I came to the game tonight because you played a hell of a game both ways,” the coach told LA Kings Insider. “Both teams played with a lot of detail, a lot of pace. There were plays being made, but plays offensively and defensively. Some good goaltending, of course, at both ends. Certainly, they’re a very good team. I can speak for ours, but we were happy with our game. It’s just not finishing — and it wasn’t because we didn’t create chances. We had our share. A few posts that didn’t go in. Sometimes those go off the post and in,”

Todd McLellan, Los Angeles Kings coach, to L.A. Kings Insider.

The Kings’ offense is waiting to explode like it did in a 5-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights (24-18-6, 54 points, tied for third in the Pacific Division) on Thursday. Maybe there will be a breakthrough Tuesday against the Lightning.

Alex Iafallo LA Kings
Alex Iafallo was one of four Kings with five shots on goal against Carolina.
(Ben Ludeman / USA TODAY Sports)

The defense — while outstanding for the most part — appears to need work on staying alert for 60 minutes. They’ve been getting burned on occasional mental lapses as well as a few bad bounces.

Los Angeles has given up just two goals each in its past three games and has not given up more than four goals in regulation time since Oct. 30 — a stretch of 34 games in two and a half months. 

Alec Martinez
Alec Martinez is back from injury, shoring up the defense. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Campbell has come up with stellar performances in two straight outings (he also played against Vegas, stopping 44 shots), giving Jonathan Quick some rest.

Forechecking Drills in Forefront at Practice in Tampa

Monday’s second day of practice in Tampa was sharp, with work on getting to the right spots on the forecheck, according to Rosen, who also mentioned that McLellan spoke on Sunday about how there is an ongoing effort to raise the team’s playing pace and that that area has seen improvement since the start of the year.

About Monday’s drills, Iafallo told Rosen: “Our structure, there’s a great set-up for that. It helps everyone play quicker. It definitely helps me as well. Forechecking, it’s easier to get pucks and the whole structure that we’re pushing this year. It’s a good mind-set for us. Make everything quick, everything fast and smart.”

On Saturday, for the first time since Dec. 17, a 4-3 overtime win over the Bruins, Iafallo did not show up on the scoresheet. In nine straight games, he had at least one point (four goals and six assists). For the season, he’s third on the team in scoring (9 goals, 17 assists), behind captain Anze Kopitar (16 goals, 24 assists) and Tyler Toffoli (12 goals, 15 assists).

Lightning Are Not to Be Taken Lightly

Before a 2-1 loss at the New Jersey Devils (17-21-7, 41 points, seventh place in the Metropolitan Division) on Sunday, the red-hot Lightning won 10 games in a row.

Most important, on Tuesday, the Kings must find a way to slow down Nikita Kucherov (17 goals, 32 assists points), Steven Stamkos (17 goals, 27 assists) and Victor Hedman (9 goals, 32 assists). Obviously, it would help if the goaltender they run into — either Andrei Vasilevskiy or Curtis McElhinney — doesn’t turn into a brick wall before the opening face-off like Reimer and the Dallas Stars’ Anton Khubodin (who beat the Kings 2-1 with 30 saves on Wednesday) did recently.

Nikita Kucherov
Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov has 49 points. (Scott Audette / NHLI via Getty Images)

The Kings are on a nine-day, five-game road trip that will finish up with the Florida Panthers (24-16-5, 53 points, fourth place in the Atlantic Division) on Thursday and the Philadelphia Flyers (23-16-6, 52 points, tied for fifth in the Metropolitan Division) on Saturday. The next home game on Jan. 29 is against the Lightning after All-Star Weekend. Kopitar will play in his fifth NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis on Jan. 25.