The Los Angeles Kings got themselves back into the NHL’s Western Conference Finals with their clutch Game 3 win over Chicago while the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t as fortunate in a gut-wrenching double-overtime loss in Boston last night. Los Angeles got another break when the league office stepped in and issued a key suspension for tonight’s crucial Game 4, so it’s this series that our NHL analysis will start.
NEW STARS STEPPING UP IN HOLLYWOOD
Justin Williams already had a reputation for scoring Game 7 goals, but now the Los Angeles forward just seems to be getting on a good offensive roll. He’s scored in each game of this series and got the tone-setting goal to open the scoring in Game 3. What’s more he took five shots, the most on the team in Tuesday’s win. While I’ve lamented the lack of production from last year’s stars, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Penner, and the up-and-down play of Jeff Carter, Williams is stepping into the void.
I’ve also noted that Kings’ defenseman Drew Doughty has been virtually AWOL this year, after being a key contributor in the 2012 Stanley Cup run. But Slava Voynov keeps chipping in offensively. He assisted Williams on the first goal, and then scored the second himself. Voynov keeps appearing on the stat sheet and is giving Los Angeles an offensive presence on the back end.
But this Los Angeles team is about defense and that’s what stood out in Game 3. They held Chicago to just 20 shots and Jonathan Quick put his Game 2 disaster behind him and played well in the 3-1 win. Quick was at his best in the final period when the score was 2-1, and Chicago pounded him with 10 shots before an LA empty-netter finally clinched it.
I like what the Kings have going for them right now. They’re owning home ice in the playoffs thus far, with an 8-0 record in the Staples Center. While that streak has an “it’s ready to be broken” quality to it, I still like the fact that the team defense is doing the job in keeping Chicago’s scorers from really cutting loose.
Furthermore, Chicago will be a man down tonight. Blackhawks’ defenseman Duncan Keith was justifiably suspended for Game 4 after raking his stick across the face of a Kings’ player. Keith is an adroit passer from the back end and not only will that be missed, the general loss of depth could give Los Angeles an edge as players start to wear down in what will be a physical game.
It will take another grinding game, in the 2-1 neighborhood for LA to win, but that’s what I think happens tonight in Game 4.
RAASK CARRIES BOSTON
If you’re going to win a Stanley Cup there’s going to be moments where the goalie essentially invites the team to hop on his back with a promise to carry them home. That’s what Boston goaltender Tuuka Raask did in Wednesday’s 2-1 double-overtime win that gave the Bruins a 3-0 series lead over Pittsburgh.
The Penguins did what they had not done the first two games at home and that’s really attack. They hit Raask with double-digit shots each of the three regulation periods. With their own goalie Tomas Vokoun playing an excellent game, this should have been enough for Pittsburgh to win. But Raask turned away shot after shot. By the time the overtimes were over—the teams played all but five minutes of the second extra sessions—Raask had racked up 53 saves. It was a performance for the ages by a talented goalie who is still in the coming-of-age process.
A star who has come of age, but was notably quiet last night was Sidney Crosby. The league’s signature player only took three shots. That’s a modest number for a regulation game and positively awful for how long the teams were on the ice. If the league’s best player takes a few more of the shots, maybe Raask finally cracks. All it would have taken was one. Evgeni Malkin was the Pittsburgh player who was everywhere, taking ten shots and whenever there was a loose puck, it seemed last year’s Hart Trophy winner was around it. Kris Letang took eight shots, but while the defenseman has had a great postseason and racked up points, those have come through assists. I’m sure Boston will take its chances with Letang firing shots on net if it means Crosby is quiet.
Pittsburgh’s loss was really a reminder of why you can’t afford to get blown out in a playoff game, the way they were in Game 2. There will be nights like this one, where a goalie gets insanely hot or a puck doesn’t fall your way. The objective is to make sure your only losses are in these situations, and allowing best-of-seven series to let things even out. When you lose Game 1 reasonably decisively, and then Game 2 in a rout, you’re essentially asking for a lot of breaks to go your way. The Pens didn’t get them in Game 3.
Having said that, Pittsburgh has to feel good about what they saw from Vokoun. If he can give them that kind of performance again on Friday night, the Pens can at least push this series back to the Steel City.
If you’re a Pens fan, keep your goals simple—just root for your team to at least give one more game to the home fans, and then the goal of a Game 5 would be to force a shift in the pressure, which would take place if this series gets into the back end. Coming from a fan of Boston sports teams who’s watched his team rally from 3-0 down (2004 ALCS in baseball) and blow the same lead (2010 Eastern Conference semis in hockey), that’s the mindset that keeps it fun.
TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will be back on Saturday, when both Game 4s are in the books.