Following the Los Angeles Kings' 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter was asked how it felt for his team to be on track for the playoffs. "It's good," he said, before characterizing the chaos that comes with paying too much attention to the standings at this point in the season. "We were [in the top eight] the other afternoon. When we walked out we were in it, and by the time I got home and got my jammies on, we were out of it."
If that sounds like a familiar scenario (the ever-shifting playoff picture, not Darryl Sutter's pajamas, although I do find myself wondering whether he wears a sleeping cap), you might be thinking of last year. It took the Kings nearly until the very end of the 2011-12 regular season to qualify for the playoffs — they only managed to clinch with two days left to play. Of course, we all know what happened after that: Los Angeles spent the next few weeks absolutely steamrolling the competition, and before long Jonathan Quick was dropping celebratory f-bombs on live TV.
The Kings got off to a poor start this year, though — dropping their first three games, going zero for their first 23 power-play chances, that kind of thing. When they played Anaheim for the first time on February 2, Conn Smythe–winning goaltender Quick was yanked from the net after giving up two goals on three shots in the first six minutes. The Kings fell to 2-3-2, while the crowd-pleasing Ducks improved to 5-1-1.
Like so many who live and reign in Southern California, Darryl Sutter and Bruce Boudreau are misunderstood men. Asked last week if the Kings were suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover, Sutter bristled. "Well, I know what a hangover is," he said. "And I didn't have one."
For Boudreau, the problem is that everyone thinks he's something he's not. Asked by Greg Wyshynski whether the Ducks have been thriving this season because he's installed a freewheeling offensive system,1 Boudreau called that idea "a media [creation]" and added that "we're almost getting offended these days when they say we're 'Boudreau's run-and gun' team. We're not, at all."
What the Ducks have been is quite lucky. Last season they couldn't catch a break — captain Ryan Getzlaf shot at a rate that was around half his career average — but this year they've been scooping them up by the handful. According to an analysis done by NHL Numbers' Cam Charron, "no team's record is more of a house [of] cards than the Anaheim Ducks. They lead the league in shooting percentage and an anonymous Swedish goalie played lights out for them at the start of his NHL career." Well, when you put it that way
Since the Ducks first played the Kings in early February, they've lost exactly twice: once to Dallas and once this past Monday in their rematch against L.A. But lest anyone think the Freeway Faceoff loss was some kind of beginning to an end, Anaheim roared back on Wednesday night with a 5-1 win over the Nashville Predators thanks to a hat trick by Kyle Palmieri, who played up on a line with the sizzling Getzlaf and Corey Perry.2 Even if the Ducks can't completely sustain their current pace, there's no question they're a team with enviable talent — and they've given that talent a comfortable start.
For the Kings, things have been moving in the other direction. Their puck possession, strong all season, is finally resulting in the goals that eluded them early on. Their goaltending has steadily improved: In the last two games, both Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier have picked up impressive wins. They're about to embark on a ridiculous home stand — five games at Staples Center in the span of a week — and they gave their fans a fun preview last night against the Detroit Red Wings, scoring two sweet goals in the third period for the 2-1 win — their fifth victory in a row.
Sutter dismissed the notion that any stretch of games could serve as a way to judge the team. "There's no measuring stick," he said. "It's just every game is park and ride, right? Pay the toll. Get in the fast lane."
The Kings may have had trouble getting up to speed, but — just as their Southern California neighbors have been all season — they're humming along nicely now. You never know with that Los Angeles traffic.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week's Sickest Snipes
Watching the 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara pull off this graceful spinorama was like some trippy combination of a waltzing man on stilts, a daddy longlegs weaving a spiderweb, an ostrich running at 40 mph, and a really good moguls skier all at once.3 So spindly, and yet so in control!
In honor of Chara's backhand beauty (and Kopitar's, as well) — honestly, he might as well have sneaked up behind Jonathan Huberdeau and tapped him on the shoulder just to finish things off — here are a few other great backhand goals from the past week. Here's a patient Patrick Kane scoring his 10th of the season against the Oilers.
Then there's Henrik and Daniel Sedin and their crazy twin ESP. Those guys can't just score a simple goal, no no — they have to get all fancy and take advantage of the famously bouncy boards at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena like they're Happy Gilmore pulling off a trick golf shot.
Also in contention: Zach Parise's overtime chip, Nikolai Kulemin's working man's backhand, and Kyle Chipchura, who walks in from behind the net and gives that one Coyotes fan reason to grin. (I'm not making a comment on the state of the Coyotes fan base, by the way — there really is the "that one Coyotes fan" in the video.)
Piling on the Pylons: The Week's Worst Performers
Here's how bad things have gotten for the Rangers, who dropped their fifth of the last six games with a 4-3 home loss to Winnipeg and fell to 11th in the Eastern Conference: "General manager Glen Sather told The Post he intends to talk to Mats Zuccarello about returning from Russia to New York."
That's not intended to be a dig on Zuccarello, whom I like very much, not least because of his coterie of eager Norwegian reporters who are impervious to John Tortorella and dedicated only to tracking Zuccarello's every move. It's just that successful, swaggering squads don't need to start sniffing around about bringing 5-foot-7 wingers nicknamed "The Hobbit" over to the United States when their KHL season ends. That's the move of a team flailing around for answers, the macro version of a frustrated coach who can't stop rejiggering his lines. (As usual, the Rangers have that going on, too.)
Injuries have figured into the team's slide, which is in some ways good news — they're at less than full health! — but in most ways is bad. It's never a good thing when key players disappear with shadowy "upper-body injuries" that teams go out of their way to cover up because they're really concussions. Both Rick Nash (who is expected to return tonight) and Ryan McDonagh have fit this particular diagnosis.
Even when both players were healthy, though, the team struggled with its killer instinct. New York came away with three of four possible points against the Bruins and Islanders two weeks ago, for example, but blew comfortable leads in both games. They led Ottawa 2-1 midway through the third period last Thursday and ended up losing in a shootout. Against Winnipeg, the opposite happened: The Rangers fought to wage a late comeback, but couldn't muster the game-tying goal. Even a third-period man advantage didn't help; unsurprising, really, given that New York features the NHL's most feeble power play.
"I don't see why we can't play 60 minutes of desperate hockey," Ryan Callahan said after the team fell to the Jets on Tuesday. "I think that a desperate third period like we played helps us to develop the belief we need in ourselves," Marian Gaborik said. When numerous players bring up desperation as something that the team is actively seeking, you know things are not going #therightway.
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
• On Monday, the Washington Capitals' Troy Brouwer ran his mouth about former teammate Alexander Semin, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes in the offseason. "Some nights you didn't even know if he was gonna come to the rink," he said. "It's tough to play alongside guys like those because you don't know what you're gonna get out of 'em." Two days later, though, it was one of Brouwer's current teammates shouldering public criticism. In an intermission rant, NBC analyst Mike Milbury called Alex Ovechkin's play "inacceptable" and chastised him for acting "like a baby" instead of "get[ting] up and act[ing] like a man, for God's sake."4 Here's the question/problem, though: If we assume that this was all just karmic retribution from the hockey gods, does that make Milbury some sort of prophet?
• It hasn't been finalized yet, but the NHL's revised realignment plan could include a new wild-card playoff format.
• After taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia yesterday after being traded by the Kings, Simon Gagne suited up for the Flyers and, for good measure, scored a goal in his first game back. (He spent his first decade in the NHL with Philly and only recently sold the house he owned in the area — which head coach Peter Laviolette rented from him for two and a half years.) "I almost feel like I never left," said Gagne, who called the Kings classy for dealing him back to his former team — though I do like the thought of this exchange.
• Over the last two weeks Joe Thornton has, when not dishing ridiculous passes, been throwing punches at a pair of high-profile All-Star–caliber players. He faced off against Chicago captain Jonathan Toews on February 15 and got into a decent scrap with Dallas's Jamie Benn this weekend. In his career he's also dropped the gloves with players including Ryan Getzlaf, Rhett Warrener, Ken Daneyko, Bryan McCabe, and Eric Lindros — who left him with a broken cheekbone. Not a bad career fight card, all things considered.
• I'm traveling today to Boston for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and I'm most looking forward to two things: (1) the panel with Brian Burke and Stan Van Gundy titled "It's Not You, It's Me," and (2) the paper analyzing NHL zone entries. Sure, the second one may sound a little bit dry, but it's actually relevant to current events. In an article by Michael Russo about the Minnesota Wild's "dump and chase" system, Wild captain Mikko Koivu explains: "You learn that as a kid. It's simple, stupid math. Red line to blue line, you don't want to lose the puck." But according to the "simple, stupid math" used in the research paper [PDF], "carrying the puck across the blue line generates more than twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals as dumping the puck in." Your move, Koivu, and I'm gonna need a scatterplot in your response.
• Everyone talks about Seth Jones and Nathan MacKinnon as the players to watch in this year's NHL draft, but Jonathan Drouin has been turning heads and building buzz for months. (He was impressive playing as a 17-year-old for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.) A few weeks ago, Drouin scored an incredible goal for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.5 This week, with that under his belt, it's as if he decided a measly goal would be too easy: Here, he does pretty much everything a hockey player can do other than score, a one-man skills competition that's being called the "most amazing shift you'll ever see."
And a Beauty! The Week's Best in Net
The inside-the-goal camera angle here of Cam Ward stopping Joel Ward is great. Being a goalie looks kinda hard, eh?
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
I'm not entirely sure why the footage of Zac Rinaldo threatening Phil Kessel cracked me up so much; I think it has to do with the fact that it involves Phil Kessel, obviously, but also how entry-level the trash talk sounds.6 "I'm gonna catch you with your head down tonight," Rindaldo warns. "Gonna take it off." If the puck hadn't dropped, there's no telling how far he'd take this vague menace — a throat-slitting pantomime doesn't feel out of the question. You will regret doing this.7 Anyway, the important question is, did Rinaldo really think Kessel was gonna be scared of his threat? The guy has to deal with the Toronto media calling for his head every time he so much as shows up at practice.
First NHL goal
Set up by Sidney Crosby
Tell your grandchildren.