The second half of the season kicked off for the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, and if this first game was anything to go off of, it’s going to be a ride.
It would be much nicer to go with “It’s going to be easy.” That’s not how hockey works, and it’s DEFINITELY not how the regular season Kings work. From the moment Jake Muzzin was transferred to injured reserve on Saturday afternoon, it felt like this showdown with a dangerous Nashville Predators team could be a tough one. As Alex from On The Forecheck pointed out when I guested on their podcast last week, there are quite a few similarities between the Preds and Kings, including the way in which both teams have succeeded despite lower possession numbers. Both teams were also without one crucial scorer - Jeff Carter and Filip Forsberg are both weeks away from a return – so aside from the late absence of Muzzin, the teams entered Saturday on mostly even ground.
Unfortunately, Muzzin’s absence was keenly felt, especially when Drew Doughty went to the box for four minutes in the first period. Doughty was displeased with referee Ian Walsh, who had just called him for interference on Pontus Aberg, and apparently his customary post-whistle yelling crossed enough of a line to earn him an unsportsmanlike conduct. This meant that John Stevens had to cobble together a PK unit out of Alec Martinez, Derek Forbort, Christian Folin, Kevin Gravel, and Kurtis MacDermid, and while all those guys have been options for the Kings’ PK before, this was a tough job. It was made tougher when Dustin Brown tripped Kyle Turris while being knocked to the ice, and though the fans protested, LA had 2:00 of 5-on-3 play and 1:45 of 5-on-4 play to deal with. The Kings actually did an admirable job keeping Nashville to the outside, and Martinez, Folin, and Forbort killed the two toughest minutes with aplomb. However, with 19 seconds to go, Roman Josi got a long slapshot through traffic and past Jonathan Quick.
It was worse because, until that point, the Kings had been outplaying the Predators. However, the chances had not been all that dangerous, and when one decent glove save by Pekka Rinne is the only one I can remember in the first period, that’s clear. The Kings needed a spark after the frustration of the first period, and Adrian Kempe pulled one out of nowhere against PK Subban. Kempe’s aggressiveness has sent him to the sin bin frequently in 2017-18, but it paid off when Subban bobbled the puck in his own zone, because Kempe was ON IT.
That impressive balancing act put the Kings level, and in the second they had the more dangerous opportunities by location. However, Nashville received the benefit of two major breakdowns in defensive zone coverage. Scott Hartnell was left unguarded in front of the net to chip a puck past Quick, while Austin Watson received a cross-ice pass from Subban and had most of the net to work with. Kurtis MacDermid probably wouldn’t have been in the lineup if Muzzin had played, and after the break it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him scratched, because he missed his mark on both chances.
One guy who had been scratched was Alex Iafallo, and his attempted bounceback game wasn’t too exciting until the third. Much has been made of how rarely Iafallo’s efforts have translated into points, but he made a beautiful feed to Trevor Lewis and got rewarded. If Nashville was clinical, LA was only slightly less so, and Lewis’ shot was terrific.
The hope from the Lewis goal was quickly extinguished by Watson’s second goal of the game on a net-front deflection, but hey, still nice. (The recently returned Ellis got his first assist of the year by taking the initial point shot.) On the bright side, the Kings’ power play continued a recent run of success for the oft-criticized unit, as they broke through on the only penalty of the third period. (Drew Doughty was demonstrably upset after the officials appeared to be whistling him for another penalty, but the referees got together and decided not to make a call. Maybe the unsportsmanlike yelling or the “Ref You Suck” chants had an effect.) Tyler Toffoli doesn’t miss open nets very often, and after scoring on Pearson’s rebound, LA had 11 minutes to find one more.
An equalizer might have been expected earlier in the season. In fact, before Thursday’s loss to Calgary, the Kings were 20-0-3 when scoring at least three goals. Even that loss probably doesn’t fit in the same category, as an extra attacker goal was the only reason LA got to three. On Saturday, though, the shorthanded defense couldn’t string two passes together in the final five minutes against Nashville’s stronger unit. By the time LA finally got Quick out of the net, the Predators simply iced the puck until the final seconds, when LA couldn’t sneak anything by Rinne.
This first half was certainly a success for the Kings, and even though we’ll be digging into some of the aspects of LA’s performance that dropped off since last season (and the start of this season), it’s nice to be looking down at most of the division. Margin for error remains thin, though, and Saturday’s loss shows the biggest pitfall LA will have to avoid: an inexperienced defense that’s one injury away from real trouble. That includes the goalie; Jonathan Quick was slow to get up after taking a shot to the back of the leg in the second period, and even though he had an off-night statistically, the margin for error isn’t as large as it was. Even if LA stays healthy, I’ll be watching to see if Oscar Fantenberg, Paul LaDue, or one of last night’s blueliners steps up to fill a third-pairing role the way LA needs them to.
LA’s next game is on Saturday, January 13. Hang in there!