Friday, October 21, 2011

Kings v. Phoenix - Drinking the Kool-Aid

Hermano here.

The Kings are looking pretty, pretty good.

But hey, as Mr. Wolf says:

The Kings look great, but let’s not kid ourselves. They received a healthy blast of adrenaline and support from the home crowd during Tuesday’s home opener and then proceeded to obliterate a shitty St. Louis Blues team that was on the last leg of its road trip. Then they traveled a couple hours to Phoenix to beat a team that has one legitimate ace (Shane Doan) and a team full of scrubs.

Guess what? On Monday, I posted a shutout and my beer league hockey team won 3-0. After the game, in the locker room, everyone was (righteously) hyped about how good we’re looking and how we’re finally coming together as a team after adding several new pieces. It’s hard to be a Debbie Downer after a big win, but let’s not kid ourselves, guys – we beat the worst team in the league.

Regardless, there’s quite a lot to be happy about how the Kings are playing right now. We’ll see how they respond over the weekend when they face the red hot Dallas Stars (side note: Is that not the strangest four words you’ve ever seen after they dealt Brad Richards and traded for Eric Nystrom after he was waived by Minnesota and no one picked him up – simply to pay his full salary in order to hit the cap minimum) this Saturday.

Let’s face it – this is the best Kings lineup we’ve ever seen, arguably better than the 1990-1991 Kings with Gretzky, Robitaille, Sandstrom, Krushelnyski (tear), Kudelski, and Taylor, along with Larry Freaking Robinson, Steve Duchesne (personal favorite), and Rob Blake absolutely killing it. (Okay, you could probably make the argument that the 89 or 91 Kings were better, but whatever.) And let’s not forget my boy, Kelly Hrudey, in net. But most importantly, aside from how they look on paper, this current Kings team is playing unbelievably well together. It’s like they’ve hit that point in February when all the players know where their teammates will be on the rink at any given moment, and the team gels together for that final playoff push – only the Kings have hit it full stride in October. It doesn’t seem like anyone, save Clifford or Lewis (and Voynov for obvious reasons), is trying to figure out their linemate or how their linemate plays the game. This team has instantly clicked and it’s a pleasure to watch them play.

I'd like to think the 18,000+ mile road trip, spanning three countries and two continents, had something to do with this current team chemistry. For those in the corporate world who are lucky (or unlucky) enough to have corporate retreats, what is the intended purpose for those retreats? I’m guessing the purpose is to build chemistry and strengthen the team bond in order to continue kicking ass for the corporation (or something like that). The Kings had two choices during their monster road trip, either get closer as a team or re-enact the movie Battle Royale.

And that brings me to my first side note – If the Kings were involved in a Battle Royale, who would win?

- JMFJ would be the reckless loose cannon of the bunch and probably blow himself up trying to toss three grenades at once, or maybe by trying to rig some ridiculous explosive contraption with 500 pounds of C4.

- Stoll would immediately end himself once he learned that Heidi Androl was not on the island.

- Westgarth and Penner would get stabbed in the back almost immediately after the game begins, simply because the collective group always fears the big guys who physically dominate others. It’s kinda like how the really good looking and in-shape people on Survivor get booted off almost immediately. Errr, I’ve never seen that show, I have no idea what I just wrote.

- Greene would probably gather all the young ones and be their leader. My guess is that Martinez, Lewis, Drewiskie, Hunter, and Voynov go with Greene. This team would probably last until the end of the game.

- Richards would immediately form a rival gang and probably convince Brown, Gagne (obviously), Moreau, Williams, Scuderi, and Mitchell to join. This rival team would also last until the end and then fight the other gang for supremacy.

- The goalies would immediately withdraw into the shadows and no one would ever see or hear from them again.

- My guess is that Kopitar would be a ninja (have you seen his visor?) and slowly pick off everyone one by one. He'd be that ridiculous character in all those cheesy martial arts movies that shoots poison blowdarts, runs up trees and then flies back down to deliver the fatal stroke, breathes underwater and then cruises up behind folks just like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, etc.

My point with all this Battle Royale talk is that it didn’t happen and the team bonded during their long and arduous road trip. The only real question is whether they can maintain this chemistry throughout the entire season, especially once the LA distractions start creeping back into their lives. For three weeks, they didn’t have to deal with their wives, girlfriends, kids, agents, homies, and all the other people or off-ice situations that affect a player’s game. I have never seen a more cohesive Kings team in October than this team we’re watching right now. (And yes, I’m blaming the ugly loss to Buffalo as a result of the back-to-back game in two different countries.)

Yet despite being incredibly happy with how our team is currently performing, I’m not ready to camp out on Figueroa to reserve my spot for the Stanley Cup parade in June.

The Good:

Slava Voynov. Voynov has been holding his own. He was asked to step up and he has. Now, he’s not exactly the offensive threat that Doughty or JMFJ are, and he’s not exactly the defensive wall that Scuderi or Mitchell are. The important thing to come away with is that Voynov is not looking like Randy Jones out there – he’s not giving up the puck at the worst possible time, he’s not letting guys beat him around the wing, and he’s making decent decisions when he gets the puck at the point. Sure, I’d like him to make some sick breakout passes or even take it end-to-end, but that’s just not gonna happen two games into his NHL career. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m pleased with his performance, especially since he was asked to fill some big (is heavy the more apropos word?) shoes. Despite almost knocking the puck past Quick during a rebound in the home opener, Voynov has been good at tying up sticks and preventing the second chances. I’m a little concerned about his inability to move guys from the front of the net when they post up on Quick, but hopefully he’ll be more aggressive in moving those guys and preventing the screen.

Anze Kopitar. Is there any doubt we would have made the finals last season but for Kopitar’s ankle injury? I remember when he first came into the league, he obviously had the skill and the vision, but he was weak on his skates and was letting defensemen strip him of the puck too often in the offensive zone. Today, Kopitar does what he wants with the puck in the offensive zone. No one can take the puck away from him. It’s scary – watch how many times a defenseman will strip Kopitar of the puck. It’ll happen maybe once every other game. But the best part is, now that he’s got Gagne on the wing, Kopitar is a legitimate scoring threat every time he crosses the blue line. Other than Gretzky or Ziggy Palffy, how many other Kings were legitimate scoring threats every time they crossed into the offensive zone?

Simon Gagne. I was completely blasé when I heard about the Gagne pickup. I don’t follow east coast teams so I basically didn’t really know what a stud this guy was. After watching him for the past two months, I’m convinced this is on par with the Mike Richards signing this summer. Why? Because he’s skilled enough to bury it in the net and, therefore, defensemen can no longer double-team Kopitar when he comes down the net. This opens up more room for Kopitar to do what he wants – and it’s showing, considering how Kopitar has a point in basically every game he’s played so far. I’m convinced it’s not so much because Kopitar got better over the summer; it’s because Gagne is a legit threat and defensemen have to respect him, too.

Mike Fucking Richards. Was I disappointed we didn’t land Brad Richards this summer? Not really. (I’m not a big believer in pursuing the top free agent and paying him billions – didn’t want us to get Kovalchuk, and didn’t really want us to lose sight of the future by overpaying B.Richards.) Was I disappointed that we gave up Simmonds? Kind of. Was I disappointed we gave up Brayden Schenn. Fuck yes. Did I even know how good of a player Mike Richards was before the trade was announced and I immediately youtubed every single clip online? Nope. Was I drinking the Mike Richards kool-aid once we traded for him? Not at all.

Guess what? I have now shotgunned the pitcher of kool-aid – I now believe in Mike Richards. He creates enough opportunities and has that scoring touch (which Schenn currently lacks in the NHL) to make him a solid offensive threat, but the main reason why I’m in love with M.Richards is because of his two-way game. On Tuesday, late in the third period, we’re up 5-0 and the game is already mentally over. The Blues are just trying to get one goal so they don’t look completely embarrassed and although the Kings should be doing everything they can to make sure Quick gets his shutout, they’re letting the Blues get one too many good looks which leads to some decent scoring opportunities. Richards ends up with the puck in the offensive zone, fires off a shot that Brian Elliott barely saves with his blocker, and the Blues immediately fire it up ice for an outnumbered attack. Richards, who is the deepest King on the other side of the rink, busts his ass and skates back just in time to tie up the trailing forward who has a clean look at a half-open net. Richards ties up the guy’s stick, the guy misses his wide-open shot, and the Kings clear the puck out of the zone.

The thing I like most about M.Richards is that he breaks up plays on the defensive end “on the reg.” As a goalie, it fires me up whenever one of my forwards busts his ass on the backcheck and breaks up plays. Shit like that won’t ever appear on the score sheet (well, I guess it “appears” as one less shot on the shot total), but it contributes heavily to team chemistry. Goalies get fired up because you just prevented a very good scoring opportunity. Defensemen get fired up because you just saved their ass. Forwards get fired up and become inspired to skate harder once they hit the ice. The other team gets disappointed because they thought they had a sure-thing goal. The only reason why this doesn’t happen all the time is because you have to not only be in amazing shape to continually skate your ass off as a center (you’re the guy who will go deepest in the opposing team’s zone and you’re expected to be one the deepest offensive guys when you’re defending in your own zone – thus you’re skating from one end to the other on a constant basis), but you have to have the mental fortitude to push through pain and fatigue to make those kinds of plays. Penner doesn’t have it (although he shows occasional flashes of brilliance on the backcheck – I saw it momentarily during tonight’s game, but it disappeared just as quick. I don’t know if that makes me more or less frustrated with Penner, although he had a great game today). Kopitar, thankfully, does.

The Bad:

Matt “Face Time, Baby” Greene. This guy has looked absolutely terrible these past few games. Thankfully Greene didn’t get a penalty tonight, but what was up with that elbow on Tuesday? He got burned multiple times in Philly which led to some awful penalties. He looks completely lost out there. I never thought I’d say this, but he needs to step up his game or else he’s gonna lose his job. I used to consider him a rock on defense, but he’s been so incredibly sloppy these past few games. Remember when the Kings used to have some atrocious goaltending (Cechmanek, LaBarbara, and Garon immediately come to mind) and you would hold your breath every time the other team took a shot? Well, that’s how I currently feel about Matt Greene. I really hope improves, because it’s getting pretty annoying rewinding the game whenever I black out.

Keeping My Eye On:

Justin Williams. Through 6 games, he’s got 2 goals and 5 assists and is a +5. He hasn’t done anything particularly flashy, but he’s been setting up that first line perfectly and the puck is hitting the back of the net as a result. I thought he had a great playoff series despite missing the end of the regular season with a shoulder injury. I’m looking forward to seeing Williams continue to kick ass on the first line and set up our main scoring threats.

Seriously, how unstoppable is this first line?! In fact, whenever that line is on the ice, does anyone else get really pissed off when the Kings don’t score? I feel like I just created three forwards on NHL 12 and, using a cheat code, maxed out all of their stats to 99 – but whenever they don’t score, I’m like “What the fuck? There must be some glitch in the game.”

Final Question:

Hey, quick question to end this post: Who is your favorite current Kings player? I have a feeling that M.Richards will be mine by the end of this weekend. To be honest, I don’t really have a favorite current Kings player. If I had to choose to get a player’s jersey from last season’s team (at gunpoint, of course – which is how I address all my hypothetical questions), I guess I would choose… uh… Brown? Maybe?

Just to show you I’m not totally full of shit, my favorite Kings player of all time, obviously, is Kelly Hrudey, but I would also love to get jerseys of: Duchesne, Nicholls, and probably Avery (I already have a Robitaille jersey, until I give it to my Hermana one of these days). Kopitar, Doughty, and JMFJ are all awesome, but I’ve never felt compelled to get their jerseys or call them my favorite current Kings player. If Schenn was playing, he’d definitely be in the running. For now, I’ll just keep that top spot open until M.Richards scores a hat trick and secures yet another shutout for Quick.

Well, I think you can already tell what will be number one on my Christmas list: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Errrrr, I mean a M.Richards Kings jersey.

Much love till my next post.


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