Pushed by the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA), and implemented for the first time this season, are bye weeks—five days of no games, no practices—between January 1 and April 9, 2017 as part of a new schedule format.
Though the bye week was the major concession the NHLPA obtained as part of the new 3-on-3 All-Star Game format, opinions of the players and coaches vary widely, with some even arguing that the bye week negatively affects player safety.
But even more glaring is the effect on the quality of the game. NHL teams are 3-9-1 in their first game after bye weeks. Two days ago the New Jersey Devils made it 3-8-1, and tonight the Kings made it 3-9-1 after losing to the Arizona Coyotes 5-3. It was a predictably off-sync, off-speed performance that would be expected after five mandated days away from the ice.
The Kings started out sloppy. A Jeff Carter hooking penalty only 3:33 into the game led to a Brendan Perlini goal. With 50 seconds left on the power play, the Coyotes breakout was not speedy or spectacular. But Drew Doughty failed to intercept Radim Vrbata's soft, bouncing pass from the right wing to Perlini in front of the net. The puck ended up with Perlini in front of the net who fanned on his first chance, but scored on his second. In a moment of bad decision, Dustin Brown moved laterally away from Perlini, thinking Perlini would run out of room and curl left away from the net. It left Perlini unhampered as he slammed in the second shot:
Only 16 seconds later, Tobias Rieder used a basic left pivot turn—the kind that even I used to practice at the old Iceoplex each time I had a chance—to completely shake off Brayden McNabb. The now-open Rieder made a powerful approach from the right corner and top shelfed the puck in the net. Referees wrongly waved off the goal and play continued, but Rieder’s second shot rebounded to Josh Jooris who “scored” from the left hash mark. Officials corrected themselves after review to give the goal to Rieder.
The last five minutes of the first period were full of great Kings chances. Adrian Kempe, making his NHL debut, shot wide on a breakaway he generated after his hooking penalty was not called. Kyle Clifford made a hard move to the net but was hooked at the last moment. Nick Shore rushed along the left wing and waited for Trevor Lewis to fly in from the right, but Lewis’ shot was saved by Mike Smith.
The first period was enough for Arizona broadcasters to call it a “commanding lead.” They praised the Coyotes’ “winning all of the [puck] battles” and repeatedly emphasized the importance of winning faceoffs, which they won most of in the first period. Commentator Tyson Nash also pointed out the importance of a healthy Mike Smith.
The Kings would eventually outshoot the Coyotes 44-22, but the shot total was a poor indicator. The Kings took many shots but never fully established their dominant puck possession system at any point in the game. Inability to spend sustained time in the offensive zone meant that Kings shots were rarely followed by second chances.
Despite all of this, the Coyotes could not put the game out of reach in the second period, managing only five shots and not scoring on a 4-on-3 power play.
In the third period, intelligent angle work by Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter paid off—a Pearson pass off the boards to Carter who shot the puck, leading to a juicy rebound for Pearson gave the Kings life. And later, Dustin Brown, in front of the net, sacrificed his body and took two tries to score.
But both Kings goals were answered quickly by Arizona. After Pearson scored, Perlini scored on a 2-on-1 chance created when Alec Martinez attemped in vain to steal the puck. The failed gamble left Jake Muzzin as the lone defender with Kings forwards chasing.
After Brown’s goal, the Kings had a golden opportunity to tie the game late with a power play manufactured by Brown, who, after some agitating front-of-net play, lightly bumped into Mike Smith. Smith then hit Brown’s face with a high stick. But a short handed goal by Jordan Martinook a few moments later was the stake that killed the Kings’ momentum and comeback hopes.
Say what you want about the inability to sustain a forecheck. Say what you want about the offense being out of sync, and the Coyotes players skating faster. Say what you want about bye weeks and the failure to get momentum going until the third period. But in the end, the difference in the game was the inability of Peter Budaj to stop two stoppable shots by Perlini and Martinook, combined with this beautiful save of the game by Mike Smith against Anze Kopitar:
The Kings remain one point out of the wild card spot (60 points) with the Calgary Flames ahead of them. Fortunately, the Kings next face the Florida Panthers on Saturday, February 18. The Kings previously defeated the Panthers 6-3 on February 9.