To be perfectly honest, I’ve not seen much of the Kings this year, other than their visits to the UC: There’s an 8-hour time difference between here and California, so I tend to reserve my 3am game starts for Vancouver. Fortunately I know someone who has had ample opportunity to get a very good look at the reigning Champs, both as a Divisional Rival and during their 7-Game WCSF. So, without further ado, I’d like to present ElvisVF101 from the excellent Fear The Fin, the SBN blog of the San Jose Sharks. He was not only kind enough to answer my dumb questions, he’s also provided a wonderful preamble. The following is all his, italicised questions are mine. Enjoy


So you’re playing the LA Kings in a playoff series. I’m sorry for you on a multitude of levels. First off, prepare for massive massive frustration. The Kings are a darned good hockey team and you’re bound to lose a few games. This time of year, every loss feels like the apocalypse. Second, you’ll have to deal with Kings “fans.” I put “fans” in quotation marks because being a fan of the LA Kings means something a good deal different than being a fan of other teams. Fans of other teams are passionate about their teams and stick with them through thick and thin. They suffer through thick and thin with their team. If you’re a fan of any team in the “Greater” LA Area (and I put Greater in quotations because, believe me, there’s nothing Great anywhere in LA), your team’s success is like the latest fashion. You wear it while it’s hot, and then toss it aside when it no longer serves your purpose of looking cooler than anyone else in your own head. That makes them completely unlike Bay Area sports fans. Trust us. It’s totally true because we say it all the time, so it must be true. Third, you’ll have to endure aerial shots of LA. And LA is a dump. It’s a city of 9 million people in the middle of a desert basin with no water and it was where all the outlaws went during the Gold Rush. And it doesn’t look like anything’s gotten better since then. But LA’s, like, a major media market or something. It’s such an important media market that America’s largest and most profitable league has no team in the market and still does just fine.

But enough about the City of Angels. Not just the crappy movie, but the crappy town too. Let’s talk about their hockey team, the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. You have questions. And, unlike Sharks’ fans, when posed with the question “So when’s your team going to win something?”, we have answers:

 It seems that the thing that most Hawks fans dread is the Kings’  forecheck. Is it as scary as advertised and should we fear for the health of Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya?

While the forecheck will be what gets all the attention, make no mistake: the Kings play the body in all three zones. This is a Darryl Sutter hockey team. And that means big, physical hockey intended to crush the will to live out of the opposition. Sutter may not have had much success prior to last season’s cup, but he’s also never had a team this good. Even his Cup Final team in Calgary was a pale shadow of what this Kings team can do. The Kings regularly outhit their opposition. And while hits are clearly a flawed statistic that are inflated for the home team, there’s no doubt the Kings play the body better than any team still alive in the playoffs, and probably better than any team in the league. LA throws so many hits that delivery guys coming to Staples Center have had to start wearing pads because LA instinctively hits anything that enters their zone.

Anyone who subscribes to the CORSI/Fenwick school of thought will also tend to tell you teams that hit don’t do so well because teams that throw a lot of hits are also generally bad possession teams. The reason they throw so many hits is that they don’t have the puck. Well, as it turns out, the Kings are also a pretty good possession team, regularly outshooting their opposition. LA can roll 4 effective lines, and has good production from the back end. They do aggressively forecheck, but they also will push play to the outside in the Neutral Zone and use hits to separate men from the puck. They finish checks. Every check. Any check they can throw. “Physical Investment” is a very overused cliche in hockey but it applies 110% to the strategy employed by Sutter and the Kings. Over the course of a 7 game series, the Kings wear you down. At the start of the game, they’ll come out hitting, keeping the game tight. If they gain a lead, they don’t sit back. They double down on the hitting and aggressively counter attack as teams are forced to press to tie.

If you’re looking for an analogy for the Kings, they’re very much like Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea teams that won titles. Chelsea won a lot of games 2-0. Lots of teams can win games 1-0. Chelsea always found a way to get that second goal, and they did it, because they had the ball. And while offense, always gets the attention, it was a sound defense that was their foundation. Not at all unlike LA.

 

Jon Quick seems to have reverted to “Conn Smythe Jon Quick”. How is he solved?

Okay, first things first, there’s no way Jonathan Quick is his real name. That’s SO not a real name. It’s like Dirk Diggler. You rename yourself that because you want people to think you’re a badass. I have no idea what his real name is, but it sure as heck isn’t Jonathan Quick. It’s probably Pointdexter Wigglesworth or something.

Anyway, Jonathan Quick is a VERY aggressive goaltender. He comes WAY out of the crease to make saves. If Antti Niemi is the poster child for a goaltender who stays in the crease to take away the bottom of the net, Jonathan Quick is his polar opposite. The crease, to him, is like the hotel to Radulov and Kostitsyn on the night before a game: he probably belongs there, but… he takes it as more of a suggestion than a rule. Quick will come VERY far out of his net to make saves. He has a good glove hand and fast reflexes, so coming out to cut down the angle plays to his strengths.

You have to beat him by forcing him to give up rebounds, because the net will be wide open if he does. This is where his defense comes into play. The Kings know that Jonathan Quick likes to come out to play the puck. So their defense always remain very aware of where the puck is, and make sure to clear rebounds. Trying to shoot pucks in off defenseman is a common tactic, and it’s one the Kings’ defense is always aware of, and actively works to overcome. You’ll note that while the Kings are defending, LA defenders are very rarely hit by a shot unaware. If the puck makes contact with an LA defender, he knows it’s coming and is actively seeking to do it, eliminating many of the random bounce goals that are so characteristic of playoff hockey. This is another place where LA’s “physical investment” comes into play. LA defenders are able to be aware of when the puck is coming because they are winning their own physical battles in front of the net. This is because they have been wearing you down all game and all series. If the Hawks want to win these battles, they’re going to have to make like Patrick Kane at a Sorority House and be all over the Kings, forcing them to deal with them and not deal with the puck.

A better strategy is shooting off of the net and playing carroms off the end-boards. This is much harder for Quick and the defense to read, and may create some of the empty net chances that result in goals.

LA have a good mix of Puck Carriers and Stay At Home Studs on their blueline. Can you see a weakness that the Hawks can exploit on the Kings’ D?

There can be a very lively debate as to who has the best defenseman in this series. Duncan Keith is a former Norris Trophy winner who played one of the best seasons by a defenseman I’ve ever seen in 2010. Drew Doughty does not suck at hockey. He may, in fact, be good at hockey. Very good. But there’s one thing for sure Duncan Keith has that Drew Doughty doesn’t, a partner who is also very good at hockey. I know everyone has an opinion on the matter, and I’m personally of the belief that Brent Seabrook may be, in many ways, the better defenseman on that top pairing. Now, once upon a time, Robyn Regher may have been a very good defenseman in the NHL. But when Robyn Regher was a good defenseman in the NHL, no episodes of Lost or The Office had aired, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane had never played an NHL game, and America had never had a Black President. You want success, you skate at Robyn Regher, and then skate around him. Drew Doughty has done a good job covering for him so far, but the more you make him cover, the less he can hurt you offensively.

Rob Scuderi and Slava Voynov are another impressive pairing. Voynov is a very gifted kid who appears to be the real deal and then some, and Scuderi is a guy who’s been their before. However, he is, also, on occasion, old and slow. He’s another guy who might be a target for the Hawks to call out with their speed. Matt Greene, who is a goddam sexual tyrannosaurus (http://laseitz.blogspot.com/2009/03/matt-greene-is-much-touger-than-me.html) is a similar player. He loves to play the body, but could be called out for speed.

None of this is to say the Kings can’t play with speed, but they are legitimately a defensive juggernaut. If you let the Kings dictate the game, they’ll have you for lunch. It’s very much up to the Hawks to turn this series into an open affair with speed and quick passing. Something that will be made difficult by the poor spring ice conditions in LA. The tight, quick passing that can push the Kings back on their heels is much tougher to do come May and June in California.

 

Coach Q just rolled his lines against the Wild and in Game 1 against Detroit. Since then he’s hit the line blender. How do you think he should line up against the Kings?

Coach Q is a Jack Adams and Stanley Cup winner, who clearly has some knowledge of the game that is greater than mine. I say this, because I’d count myself a critic of The ‘Stache who thinks his success is as much due to a historically amazing 2010 squad as anything else. But I’m also just a guy on the internet.

Having home ice will be a blessing for the Hawks, because Darryl Sutter is a very good coach who is very good at making adjustments and getting good matchups. I’m honestly not convinced that Quenneville is as adept at matchups. But that’s certainly up for debate.

When you’re down to this level, it really is about 5 man units as opposed to just plain forward lines. The chess match for this series is going to be about whether Jonathan Toews can overcome whatever combination of factors were working against him with Detroit. Henrik Zetterberg won a Conn Smythe because he shut down Sidney Crosby. He’s never quite been that good again, even if he’s still been really really good. But, for a few games in the Detroit series, he definitely looked like That Guy again.

The bad news for Toews is, he’s about to go up against a guy who may be better. Anze Kopitar is a legit stud. The media loves to talk about Dustin Brown’s leadership. And, why not. He’s clearly a leader. (http://cdn0.sbnation.com/imported_assets/1587475/dustinknee_medium_medium.gif). He’s also American. Fun story. I went to the Gold Medal Game in Vancouver. Watching Crosby score that goal was one of the worst experiences of my life. Looking over at Team USA, and seeing just how gutted they were broke my heart. That is, until I noticed Dustin Brown. Watching him suffer made that horrid day bearable. Anyway, back to Kopitar. I don’t care who’s wearing the C in LA. Kopitar is the heart of that team, and he’s what makes them go. You can bet Sutter is going to try and get Kopitar out against Toews and Co, probably with the Doughty/Regher pairing. Drew Doughty will have the formidable task of trying to contain Patrick Kane. Doughty is probably one of the few defenseman in this league who is equal to, and MAYBE, MAYBE above the task.

It’s going to be key for the ‘Hawks to win this matchup, because, after that, things get dicey. While Michal Handzus appears to have not completely been a boat anchor, he has no business playing 2C. Matching him up against the Richards line could prove to be disastrous. Richards and Carter are both great players in their own right, and presuming that Dustin Penner stays up with them, they’re a real scoring threat, but they’re not invincible. The line of Joe Thornton, TJ Galliardi and Brent Burns pretty much smoked the Richards line, something that’s been the case for the past 2 years. It’s one of the reasons the Kings/Sharks series has been such a homer series in the regular seasons and the most recent playoffs. Toews will probably do much better against the Richards line. Quenneville should definitely try and get this matchup any chance he gets.

The loss of Jarett Stoll was big for the Kings, and yet, they still managed to get contributions from their third and fourth lines. Keep an eye on Tyler Toffoli. He’s one of those young guys who seems to have a nose for the net.

Where do you think the Sharks came unstuck against the Kings? What can the Hawks learn from this?

I’ve been a Sharks’ fan for almost 20 years now. I’ve seen some bad hockey, and I’ve seen some good hockey. 2010 is not long past, and neither is 2011. Those two seasons represent the franchise’s 3rd and 2nd most successful post-seasons respectively. The 6 game series against Calgary in the season before the lockout remains the team’s deepest run. And, despite all of those factors, to me, this felt like the Sharks team that had the best chance to win the Cup. Let’s face it, the WCF ARE the Stanley Cup this season. Neither of the sacrificial lambs coming from the East are anything to worry about. Watching games in the East is like watching a West game in slow motion. This was a very good Sharks team, and it fell to a better team.

Through the first 4 games, you could make a possession argument that the Sharks were the better team. And yet, the series was tied. The Sharks absolutely came apart in the final minute of Game 2 and forgot to kill penalties. They were shut out twice on the road. Scoreless games tend to favor the Kings, and their ability to wear down the opposition. On the road, the Sharks were unable to dictate the pace of the game, and more often than not, had to play from behind. These are not things you can do against a team of LA’s caliber. They are deserving champs.

The ‘Hawks will also need to convert road PPs. The Kings are an aggressive PK team. A group of 5 nuns came to one of their practices, and the Kings instinctively came out to challenge them because they’re so used to pressuring groups of 5 in identical uniforms. The Kings also PK in layers. You’ll get sick of Eddie O talking about active sticks, but the Kings are all about those active sticks. And more importantly, the defense read the forward’s sticks and move to cover what the forward is giving up. It’s true team D. The Kings often FEED off their PK, really wresting momentum and frustrating their opposition. As with things at even strength, you have to outskate the Kings to beat them and not let them dictate the play.

Finally, would you care to make a series prediction

I like the 2013 ‘Hawks. They are fun to watch. They’re starting to look more and more like the 2010 team, with the depth coming back a bit.

But I have to say, I see this series as Kings in 7.

To my mind, the Kings have better goaltending, better overall team D, better coaching, and deeper lines. While much of my criticism of Quenneville may be unfounded, I think one thing is clear: The Kings are 120% committed to playing Darryl Sutter hockey, even if it means certain guys having to do things they might not otherwise do. And Sutter is also flexible enough that he lets those guys with skillsets suited to things other than Darryl Sutter hockey still do their thing. The ‘Hawks are a good team with a good coach, and a lot of mutual respect. I don’t see the same level of commitment to Quenneville hockey, or the same intrinsic understanding of his players from Quenneville that I see from Sutter. That’s not a criticism of Q. It’s how good the Kings were last season, and how close to that they are again this season.

Put it another way, if the 2010 ‘Hawks and the 2012 Kings played a series, that’d be a true coinflip. The 2013 Kings are much closer to the 2012 Kings than the 2013 ‘Hawks are to the 2010 ‘Hawks. While the 2013 Kings will miss Willie Mitchell, the 2013 Hawks miss Campbell, Ladd and Byfuglien far more.

Things that could be the X Factor: Dave Bolland being Dave Bolland. If the Bolland line ends up shutting down the Richards line and frees up Toews for a more favorable matchup, it would also keep Chicago from putting too heavy a burden on Handzus. He is ill suited to the kind of series this promises to be.

Also, Brandon Saad. I love watching that kid play, and in a series as even as this is likely to be, it’s frequently a young guy playing sheltered minutes who wins his matchups that can propel a team to victory. Ask the 2007 Ducks how much they loved being able to shelter the Penner-Getzlaf-Perry line.

I really would rather the Kings didn’t repeat, so while I think they’re likely to win, I’m still rooting for the ‘Hawks. I’m not bitter about 2010 anymore. I promise. Really. But screw Byfuglien. Jerk…

 

Once again, thanks to Elvis for taking the time to fill us in on the formidable opponents that lie ahead.