At one point in the recent past, the California road trip was one to be feared by the Canucks, an appropriate trip to begin on the eve of Halloween.
The trio of California teams were a dominant force in the Pacific Division, each of them a heavy, physical team that also possessed an abundance of skill. The California road trip was like running a gauntlet: you hoped to survive as much or more than win.
Now, however, the California teams are a shadow of their former selves. The Anaheim Ducks are surviving primarily because they have an incredible goaltender in John Gibson, as they’ve been significantly out-shot this season. The San Jose Sharks have also been brutally out-shot, but they’re doing so with Martin Jones in their net, who seems to view stopping the puck as entirely optional.
Then there are the Los Angeles Kings.
In the first half of the decade, the Kings were the biggest of the bads. They had stars at every position, like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick. Their heavy, yet skilled style led to two Stanley Cups. They were the team that other teams tried to emulate, the team that you had to get through in the Pacific, the team you had to survive.
They haven’t been that team in a long time.
The Kings still have Kopitar, Doughty, and Quick, but only Kopitar truly looks like a star. Quick, in particular, has fallen off a cliff, boasting a dreadful .858 save percentage this season that is only bested (or worsted) by Cory Schneider among goaltenders with at least five starts.
After Wednesday night’s game against the Canucks, the Kings are dead last in the Western Conference and have the league’s worst goal differential at minus-20. Quite frankly, their goal differential should have been a lot worse.
I saw how far the mighty had fallen when I watched this game.
- The final score of this game flatters the Kings. The Canucks dominated in every facet of the game, out-shooting the Kings 49-24. The second period was particularly cromulent, as the Canucks racked up 21 shots in the middle frame alone. The Canucks were all over the Kings like a linen cloth soaked in brandy.
- The Kings, however, struck first. J.T. Miller, who has had such a fantastic start to the season, got caught flat-footed in the neutral zone, failing to pick up Jeff Carter until the Kings’ sniper already had a head of steam. Miller couldn’t keep pace and Carter was all alone when Anze Kopitar found him with a neat saucer pass, and Carter made like a sassy drag queen and got backhanded to score the opening goal on Jacob Markstrom.
- Miller seemed eager to make up for his mistake, bursting up the ice on an electrifying rush on a first period power play. He took the drop pass from Quinn Hughes, then danced around Dustin Brown and put the puck between Drew Doughty’s legs, en route to a fantastic chance. He carved the Kings like a jack o'lantern.
- The Canucks’ power play came through not long after. With Elias Pettersson set up in The PetterZone, the Kings’ penalty kill had to respect the threat of his one-timer. First Pettersson drilled Alec Martinez with a slap shot, then faked out the entire Kings team as Hughes fed him the puck again. He wound up for another big shot, but instead sent a perfectly-placed slap pass cross-ice to Brock Boeser, who ripped the puck under Quick’s blocker.
- That goal came on one of the top power play unit’s two primary setups. Their first goal came on one setup, with Pettersson and Boeser on their off-sides, which puts them in prime position for one-timers. The other is on their strong sides, where they can better protect and move the puck. Both are effective and switching between the two will make them a nightmare for opposing penalty kills.
- Case in point, the next Canucks goal came on their strong-side formation. Some quick puck movement across the top got the penalty kill moving, then Pettersson set up Hughes for a one-timer from the point. His shot went off Bo Horvat’s stick and in, breaking the stick like Adam Larsson’s leg in the process. Thankfully Hughes’s shot hit Horvat in the stick and not anywhere else.
- Like, for instance, where a puck hit Alex Edler early in the second period. The hockey world has a few different euphemisms for the ol’ twig and berries so that play-by-play announcers can keep things PG for the kids in the audience. We frequently get “midsection,” which makes hockey players sound like insects, with three distinct body regions: head, thorax, and abdomen. For Edler’s mishap, John Garrett gave us a new euphemism — “a little bit lower than the stomach” — as Edler gave us a shot-for-shot remake of Hans Moleman’s classic film, Man Getting Hit By Football.
- Despite getting brutally outplayed in the second, the Kings managed to tie the game on the power play, as Kopitar sent a lovely pass into the slot for Adrian Kempe to deflect past Markstrom. The goal came completely against the flow, but The Flow had a response.
- Pettersson managed to out-do his ridiculous slap pass in the first period with a gorgeous stretch pass through the neutral zone to spring Boeser on a breakaway. The Flow kept things simple, making a decisive move to the backhand and lifting the puck up over Quick’s outstretched pad. Quick’s flexibility and tendency to go down makes elevating the puck essential, and Brock elevated it like it was a dish on Master Chef.
- Horvat was feeling all of his oats late in the second period. He tried to get fancy on the power play, pulling the puck between his legs for a shot on Quick. He nearly pulled it off too, getting good velocity on his shot, but Quick made the save.
- Early in the third period, Boeser completed the hattrick with another power play goal. On his strong side, Boeser came downhill towards the net, forcing Quick and the kill to respect his shot. The only King that seemed to anticipate a pass was Doughty, and it was his undoing. He tried to cut off the pass to Miller, but only succeeded in kicking the puck into his own net. Poor Doughty: you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.
- The strong-side formation struck again late in the third period, making the Canucks 4-for-6 on the power play on the night. Since the addition of Quinn Hughes to the first unit, the power play has been lights out, going 8-for-21 over the last five games. That’s a 38.1% success rate, and the team has now climbed into the top-5 in the NHL in power play percentage.
- Pettersson scored the Canucks’ fifth goal on a wicked wrist shot that was literal perfection. It went bardown like every hockey player envisions scoring in their dreams. The no-look cross-ice assist from Boeser was nearly as nice, as the kill once again had to respect the threat of Boeser’s shot, giving Pettersson the time and space for the perfect shot. It also gave both Pettersson and Boeser a four-point night.
- Pettersson did more than just put up four points, however. He ran roughshod over the Kings with his physicality. Well, one King in particular. Poor Alec Martinez: not only did Pettersson hit him with a one-timer early in the game, but he also steamrolled him on two separate occasions.
- One hit came after Carter caught Pettersson with his stick “a little bit lower than his stomach,” causing him to exact his revenge on Martinez. The second was just plain smart, bullrushing Martinez unexpectedly and taking the puck in for a great scoring chance with Miller and Boeser that was thwarted by Doughty. Clearly, we’ve gotten Pettersson all wrong: he’s not a sniper or a playmaker; he’s a power forward.
- The Kings managed to get one more goal late in the game, taking advantage of a little miscommunication in front by Tyler Myers and Alex Edler, who seemed unsure who was marking whom. Markstrom had trouble handling the bouncing, deflected shot, kicking it out to a waiting Carter like Infamous to Lil Wayne. Carter made the score look more respectable, but that’s about it.
- Quinn Hughes quietly had a three-point night himself, while leading the Canucks in corsi percentage at 5-on-5. Hughes is a gamechanger for the Canucks with the way he controls things from the backend. He’s the man behind the curtain, if the man was actually a wizard instead of a fraud.
- There was one loss for the Canucks in this game. Micheal Ferland left the game after a first period fight with Kyle Clifford. Most fights in the NHL seem pointless these days, but this one especially, as it came directly off a faceoff with seemingly little provocation. Ferland has a history with concussions and arguably shouldn’t be fighting at all. While a hand or shoulder injury seems more likely than a head injury given how the fight went, it still seems so unnecessary. Ferland was just starting to get on a roll, with three points in his last two games.