You know what happens when you’re pulling for a creaky but lovable hockey team? You appreciate the victories.
All of them.
Each and every one of them.
In your mind, you know the season will collapse at any time, and you’re perfectly aware that any lower body injury, strained Achilles, or [gulp] groin obliteration might derail your season when you least expect it. It’s a bit therapeutic, actually, because your expectations are low because you don’t expect anything at all.
So let’s say you have a buddy that breezed through college, bought stocks low and cashed in big time and was named Man of the Year two out of three years. But then he tried for more. It’s taken four years (and counting) to complete his thesis to get his doctorate. Let’s also say during those four years he took most of his savings and squandered it on really bad stocks, fell in love with the wrong people, overspent on cars that didn’t run and they came with five- to ten-year, non-revocable leases. And now, he cleaned up his act, has exclusive options on several up and coming stocks, and he married an amazingly normal person. He hired the right accountant and now he’s saying all the right things.
“I have a plan,” he says to you. “I’ve turned my life around again.”
Do you believe him?
Welcome to the 2019 Los Angeles Kings and it’s all because the 2018-19 season was the catalyst for the NHL’s version of “Intervention.” A second straight poor coaching hire resulted in both player and fan rebellion. We all knew we were in trouble in game 34 last season when somehow a putrid Kings team took the Pittsburgh Penguins to overtime on the road and Willie Desjardins put Brendan Leipsic and Nate Thompson out to start 3-on-3 play. Needless to say the Kings promptly lost, we knew Willie D. was a complete idiot, and the fan base nearly marched on the Kings offices to demand something change.
The changes came slow, but they are happening. The Kings turned in one of the better drafts in their history and an actual coach patrols the back of the bench now. Through five games this creaky team is showing promise, although they have been juggling identities like a superhero castoff from some Marvel movie. There’s the exciting contender that features multiple future hall of famers, dominates the first 30-40 minutes of games, outshoots opponents, and produces wins when they were huge underdogs; and then there’s the Keystone Cops version of that team that gives up three goal leads, can’t kill penalties, have allowed 19 goals in three losses, and given up so many deflected goals off their own skates or sticks that I could barely shove them into this column if I tried.
Which identity will prevail?
Opening night against Edmonton was a real roller coast ride with the Kings failing to hold lead after lead and Matt Roy pretending he was wearing an orange, blue and white jersey and beating Jonathan Quick a couple of times. A couple of breaks and that’s a win, so we could live with that. They rebounded nicely dominating Calgary who just happen to be the defending Pacific Division champs through two periods, gave up a three goal lead, and won in overtime as Drew Doughty drowned out the Flames crowd with expletives. They repeated that performance in the home opener, giving up another three goal lead late in the third period, and wound up winning by three with three goals in the last minute.
Once thing for certain so far is that the team is terrible in the second game of a back-to-back. Losing 8-2 to Vancouver where the team seemed to slump their shoulders and give up after making it 4-2 in the third period and then their inability to kill off a Vegas penalty on Sunday wasn’t very pretty.
We all know that last year was the franchise’s worst season since 2007-08. That particular squad never gave up 26 goals in any five-game stretch like this team has under Todd McLellan. But, you have to admit the Kings have been incredibly entertaining while scoring 20 goals in five games. Remember that this was the same team that averaged less than 2.5 goals last year.
One thing for certain is that all three wins happened because the Anze Kopitar line controls the pace of the game better than anyone. He’s absurdly amazing. These are the only words that apply. It’s not just the plays themselves, or his innate ability to make the correct decision nearly every time, but the way he carries himself as it happens. When Kopitar get “The Look” it’s not rocket science. The Look typically happens when the game is tight and tense and the Kings need something positive—a goal, a puck cleared, a lengthy possession, the right pass in overtime. Although you will never get him to say it, Kopitar has a swagger that only the elite have, and truly the elite of the elite. His self-confidence isn’t a braggart ego, rather than him just knowing where to be and when to be. We’ve seen him in two Cup runs and two Selke-winning seasons. When Kopitar gets The Look, it’s all over. Somebody has to pay and usually they do. Re-watch those two wins (and the Edmonton) game. He’s got The Look in spades and the team benefited.
These last two home games, I found myself mildly alarmed by my stanch enthusiasm for this team and future teams. Saturday’s crown was raucous and wild. When Alex Iafallo converted with 59 seconds left, Staples Center agreed with me and let out a rambunctious burst of noise that continued through two empty net goals. It’s been over a full season since Staples was this loud…a far better circumstance than almost any game last year when you wondered if Jonathan Quick or Ilya Kovalchuk might actually commit a capital crime on Willie D.
Now when the Kings implode like they did in Vancouver and against Vegas, we look intently to McLellan for reassurance that the plan is still working and we get something like this…
“There’s work to be done. It was obviously a horrendous night for that [penalty kill] unit. It needs work. Individuals need work. The system needs work. When I look at the penalty kill, though, there are some factors. There’s faceoffs and there’s the opportunities to clear pucks. Tonight, we got hemmed in our end. We couldn’t get fresh people on the ice and they’re obviously an elite power play right now. They took advantage of fatigue and they picked us apart, and eventually it was in our net. We never got relief on our penalty kill, ever.”
“From the red line in, I like how we’re playing. From the red line back, we’ve got work to do. I thought the other night against Nashville we came out of our end better. Perhaps that was due to the two different forechecks, but this team’s a handful. Vegas is a handful size-wise, they’re a handful positionally, speed and skill. I thought there were loose pucks that were up for grabs and we probably didn’t come up with enough of them or at least establish body position around the loose puck. So, red line-in, good things. Red line-back, some things we need to work on.”
You read that and you feel okay. You forget that the Kings still have a core of hall of fame players [Kopitar, Doughty, Quick] that have won multiple Cups together and a third-leading active point scorer [Kovalchuk] playing on the fourth line and shouldn’t need active coaching, but buy in that they do. Maybe that’s because these same players welcome the coaching, maybe even craving it.
Remember, a hockey team follows the lead of its coach and its best players. They have to be in sync it falls apart like at the end of a Jenga game. The Kings suddenly seem like they know who they are, even if they are telling you they are trying to find themselves. You’re always looking for identities in May and June and the Kings are definitely forming one. They can play aggressive and the can score. They have a burgeoning farm system developing a string of high-end draft picks. They still have some grit and can ignite their fans in the span of 29 seconds. They need to work on their D corps, their frustratingly play in front of the net, and a uncanny knack to giveaway the puck at the wrong times.
The worst thing I can say is that the Kings might wind up in the bottom five again and get a shot at Alexis Lafrenière. One thing I know for sure is that I won’t be bored this season. Another thing I am overly confident about saying is bad news for the rest of the NHL: LA is coming for you!