The Kings left LA today after a morning practice for Vancouver and Game 1 of their series against the Canucks tomorrow night. If the Kings, who are clear underdogs in the series, are going to have a prayer of pulling off an upset, two main things have to happen for them:
First: how successful they are in containing Vancouver’s number one line of Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows. And second, the ability of the Kings to create traffic in front of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.
Let’s take that Sedin line first.
Henrik won this year’s Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s scoring leader, with 29 goals and 112 points.
Daniel finished 12th overall in the scoring race with the same number of goals as his twin and 85 points, despite missing 19 games with an injury.
And Burrows led the team in goal scoring with 35 in his role as the tough, grinding forward who complements the Sedin twins so well.
Of the 272 goals that the Canucks scored this season, leading the Western Conference, the three players on that line scored 93 of them, over one-third of the team's total.
You can’t stop them completely; they’re just too good. But the hope is that the Kings can at least contain the trio with some modicum of success. The question is, how?
“They’re very, very good at finding guys away from the puck,” said Kings assistant coach Mark Hardy, “so I think it’s very important that we stop their cycle in the corner right away, as fast as we can. When they move the puck, they’re looking for those little give and go plays so we’ve got to finish off our checks against them and make sure that when they do have the puck we are very, very aware of their guys away from the puck.”
“To me it’s all about time and space,” says Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi. “It’s a boring cliché but if you take away time and space from those guys, you make someone else beat you.”
Easier said than done, of course, because Burrows and the Sedins cycle the puck so well.
“Henrik is deadly if you give him a good chance,” said Scuderi, “plus they work so well together. They’re real shifty, a lot of give and go between them so we just have to be careful with them and not let them beat you out of the corners because once they get a step on you they’re very dangerous.”
“All three of them find a way to really connect with each other with good close support,” said Ryan Smyth. “We have to eliminate their cycles, eliminate them holding the puck. If we’re playing in their zone, they have to play defense and sometimes puck possession takes them away from their game.”
That’s the ideal solution, hanging onto the puck more than the Canucks do. But Hardy says the Kings have to be especially careful about turnovers—particularly in the neutral zone—as they leave their own zone or head into Vancouver’s offensive zone.
“The way they turn the puck back in the neutral zone,” said Hardy, “you don’t want to have any turnovers. We’ve been trying to drive that home all year, we’ve been doing a better job of it as of late. This is a quick transition team, they come with a lot of speed so if pucks are going to be turned over in the neutral zone, we’re going to be chasing from behind. We want to play more in their end, so it’s very important that we’re very good through the middle of the ice.”
Which brings us to the second key of the series—and the man in the nets for Vancouver.
Less than two weeks ago, on April Fools night at Staples Center, Luongo was on the receiving end of an 8-3 shellacking by the Kings. Did the team accomplish anything with that offensive outburst that will carry over to the playoff series?
“What was accomplished in that game was we got some goals on Luongo,” said Murray, “which is a very hard thing to do and we don’t expect that to happen again. But the bottom line is we found a way to get through the middle of the ice, which is an important thing for us because they do play that tight structure at their own blue line. If we can get in behind them, we can generate some offensive opportunities and make Luongo make stops. If you can get their defensemen turning around and facing their goaltender on a fairly regular basis, then you have an opportunity to jump on rebounds.”
Which is where the second part of that game plan comes into play—and that is creating havoc and chaos around Luongo at all times.
The Kings learned that lesson in their home season finale against Edmonton last weekend when Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk (I know, Devan Who?) stopped 52 of the 55 shots the Kings fired at him—their highest total all season—and led the Oilers to a 4-3 shootout victory.
Don’t take anything away from the kid. He played great, but…..
“We thought he was able to see a lot of those shots,” said Scuderi. “No disrespect to Dubnyk but Luongo’s in another league so we’re going to have to make it a lot more difficult for him and score some goals.”
That means that Kings big bodies like Fredrik Modin, Michal Handzus and, of course, Smyth, are going to be lurking so close to Luongo they’ll know what he had for his pre-game meal.
“You have to get traffic against any goalie in the NHL,” said Murray. “That’s something we’ve been getting away from after the Olympic break. I thought there was seven or eight games where the shot count went down and it was primarily because we weren’t getting any net presence established, so we’ve pushed that the last seven games.
“I like what I’ve seen in the second half of games down the last few weeks,” he continued. “That’s going to be very important against Luongo, to battle hard, get your territory established and get pucks to the net.”
And once those pucks get there, make sure that either Luongo can’t see or reach them before they’re behind him and in the net.
Again, easier said than done. But absolutely essential if the Kings are going to pull off an upset in this series.