It’s never easy to try and look clear-eyed after something like last night. But if you can cut away the emotion of all of this, it doesn’t take an expert to see that the Kings’ power play is the difference in this series. Because at even-strength, it’s been pretty even, if the Hawks haven’t actually shaded it. But the special teams battle makes this series look like a mismatch. That particular facet certainly is.
It’s too simplistic to say that it’s due to inept penalty killing, because this Kings’ PP is humming. I’m not sure any team could stop it right now, though one with a coach able to recognize what is actually happening might stand a chance (however infinitesimal). The Hawks have yet to recognize the problem, or if they have they haven’t really done much about it. I went back through all the power play goals the Kings have scored this series (boy that was fun) to see if we can’t find the problem.
A couple of things at the top. First, there was a lot of teeth-gnashing last night about the Hawks not clearing the crease. This is what they’ve always done, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way to do it. The theory behind it is because you can’t bludgeon someone in front of the net anymore, basically wrestling with them there only creates twice the screen. If you can box them out before they get there, great. But if they get there you’re better off trying to deny the shot at the top in the first place.
Second, before this series Corey Crawford had a .950 SV% on the PK these playoffs. That’s kind of unheard of, and somewhat due to playing two utterly incompetent power plays brought to you by St. Louis and Minnesota. Obviously, L.A.’s wouldn’t be described as incompetent. There’s an element of market correction here.
Ok, into the mud we go:
Jeff Carter’s PP goal in Game 2, 2-2: This is when the Kings really started to use the umbrella, but in the way the Hawks haven’t figured out on their own power play. Kopitar comes down the left boards with Doughty sliding to the middle. Kruger follows Kopitar down the boards but then is also expected to cover back to Doughty when the puck goes out to the point, as Handzus is covering for a cross-ice pass. Kruger can’t close out that quickly, which leaves Doughty to pass to Voynov at the right circle, causing Kruger to sink back into the middle to cover a cross-ice pass the other way. Voynov goes back to Doughty at the “top of the key” as it were, and Kruger has been forced too low to get out to him quickly enough. It’s still a great play by Doughty, who recognized that with two men in front all he has to do is flip a shot through for a chance (learning, Keith?). But he had enough room to do so.
Jake Muzzin, Game 2, 3-2: The Hawks played this one probably exactly how they wanted. Kopitar again starts it, this time from the right side, but when he goes back out to Martinez, Hossa is right there, forcing Martinez to go to the other side and Muzzin at the circle. This is the angle the Hawks want you to shoot from, because generally the d-man on that side can easily block the lane. Seabrook and Crawford were a little off their angle here though, and Muzzin did squeeze in a great shot into a tiny opening. Not sure there’s much to do about this one.
Slava Voynov, Game 3, 1-1: This one was a bit scrambly, as off a shot and a scrum behind the net the Kings got the puck back out to Voynov as Toews and Hossa had simply sunk too low. But they were there in support of their D and if the puck had squirted in almost any other direction, they’re there to claim it. Still, it’s another easy and open shot from the middle of the ice by a point-man.
Jake Muzzin, Game 4, 1-0: This one was easy. Coming off a 4-on-4 both Sharp and Toews get caught along the wall to leave Muzzin all day from the middle of the ice. I don’t know if they lost track of when it went from a 4-on-4 to a power play or just made a mistake in not reading each other, but the result was the same.
Dustin Brown, Game 4, 3-0: This one was all kinds of disaster. Both Seabrook and Oduya lose a board battle, Oduya loses Williams coming off the boards, when the puck gets back to Muzzin Toews isn’t anywhere near him, leaving him far too much time to pick up Williams. I’m not sure Williams actually meant to knock it over to Brown, but he did. Seabrook may have been a little slow in tying up Brown, but this one happened so fast I’m not sure anyone would have gotten to him.
The Kings are also getting to try all this because their entries really couldn’t be any simpler. They simply get it in and let their behemoth forwards win the battles to get set up. There’s none of the blue line dip-trip-flip-fantasia the Hawks first PP unit is engaging in.
What’s the answer? It seems clear that the Hawks are going to have to pressure the points more than they have and leave themselves open for the cross-ice pass they’re guarding against now but not seeing. Maybe that’s just a different way to die, but this clearly isn’t working now. When the Kings go to the umbrella, that top forward is going to have to cheat toward the point at the top, like what you see teams do to P.K. Subban. It may leave the high slot open, but you can’t cover everything. And with two men in front, the point shot is the bigger danger right now. The Hawks basically need to treat Doughty like Subban right now and at least force decisions from him, Muzzin, Voynov and Martinez quicker. Right now they could write a sonnet before making any choices.
But a lot of this has been great individual plays from the Kings, and there isn’t much you can do about that. Some of this is hoping for a market correction for them as well.
As for the Hawks’ PP, the reasons for its struggles are much easier to diagnose. The Kings are forcing the top unit to dump it in, which they mostly refuse to do. Because when they have to, really only Toews is a puck-winner who can get it back. Shaw is just too small against this defense. It’s why the second unit has had more success and looked more dangerous, because all three of Hossa, Bickell, and Saad can get work done along the boards.
When they do regain control and try to get the puck to the points. because each d-man in on his strong side his only real play to set up is to switch points. But the Kings have aggressively cut that off, forcing the d-men to just put the puck back down low and cause another board battle.
Having Smith replace Shaw on the first unit would help. He’s simply better along the wall and can play with the puck below the goal line better, which is where the Hawks are going to have to get this done.
But I won’t sit on a hot stove waiting for Jamie Kompon or Mike Kitchen to actually figure something out.