Watching Wednesday night’s series opener between the Kings and the Canucks, I was wildly impressed with the play of Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. They were a pack of hyenas right from puck drop, testing Luongo with quality chances four times in the opening minute. They caused turnovers with their forechecking, pinned the Canucks in the defensive end regularly, and worked together flawlessly.
It was Kopitar’s line who set the tone for the Kings in game one, muzzled the Rogers Arena crowd, and so handily won their matchup that, in twelve and a half minutes of five-on-five ice-time, they changed the entire arithmetic of this series.
But all the chatter the next day was about the impact of Dustin Penner and the matchup between Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards. Even Alain Vigneault glossed over the Kopitar line Thursday, spending more time on Penner and Richards than what appeared to be the real problem. From the Globe & Mail:
“We need to have an answer to Kopitar’s line,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said after an optional practice on Thursday. “We need to have an answer for Penner, who was a powerful force down in our own end. We need to have an answer for Richards, who played one of the best games I’ve seen him play since he’s been in L.A.”
Magicians call this misdirection.
Mike Richards had an impactful game for the Kings, scoring a goal on a 5-on-3 power-play, and adding two assists: one on Dustin Brown’s empty netter, the other the result of some opportunism. With about three minutes to play in third, Richards took advantage of an Alex Edler giveaway and fed the puck to Jeff Carter’s skate for a sweet touch pass to Dustin Penner.
Yes, it was a lovely game winner, but the reason Richards was “the story” on Thursday morning had more to do with a couple of more symbolic moments, namely his blowing by a tumbling Ryan Kesler, and his big hit late in the game on Alex Burrows.
Penner’s performance made for a nice tale of redemption. Not only did he score the game-winner, but he made a nice, diving defensive play early in the third period to prevent Chris Tanev from getting to a delicious rebound at the side of the net when Jonathan Quick was prone. From Helene Elliot’s feature on him today, it’s clear that he’s a captivating character. It’s hard not to sympathize with a guy saying things like, “I used to be a good player,” and it was nice to see him get singled out by the opposing coach after the year he’s had.
Penner is a really good example actually, of how colourful, interesting stories can cause us to become distracted from the big picture. On Wednesday night, Penner finished the game significantly underwater, and carried a -3 personal Fenwick. Fenwick, remember, is the number that we suspect most closely corresponds to the Canucks’ own expanded version of scoring chances that they track in-house. If Vigneault is looking at the numbers we think he’s looking at, then we can be pretty confident that he knows containing Penner isn’t the top priority he made it out to be.
By that same token, worrying about the matchup between Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards is like being worried about a leaky faucet during the zombie apocalypse. Credit to Richards for his triumphant 3-point night, but he finished Wednesday’s game with a +1 even-strength scoring chance differential, and the Kings only outshot the Canucks by one shot in his twelve minutes of five-on-five ice time.
None of that is bad of course, especially considering Richards’ solid special teams contributions. But in contrast, the Canucks outshot the Kings by four with Kesler on the ice at even-strength, and Vancouver outshot the Kings in the six and a half minutes Richards and Kesler spent going head-to-head with five a side. And it’s not as if Kesler was even on the ice when Richards, Carter and Penner combined for the game-winner – that goal came against Pahlsson’s line.
Does that really sound like a matchup that’s going to cause Vigneault to lose sleep ahead of game two, or do you think it’s probable that Vigneault is more worried that the Kings outshot the Canucks by six (12-6) with Anze Kopitar on the ice?
Richards and Penner were the focus on Thursday, but if the Kings are to prevail, those aren’t the guys who will ultimately win the series. No, that would be LA’s top-line of Kopitar, Brown and Williams, who mercilessly pummeled the Pahlsson line on Wednesday night. The Canucks were outshot 9-2 with Pahlsson on the ice, and a significant amount of that damage was done by Kopitar (against whom he spent fifty percent of his five-on-five ice time). I’m pretty picky about sample sizes, so while “one bad game,” doesn’t necessarily tell us much, those are some concerning margins.
Going into this series, it looked like Vigneault would be able to use that third line to neutralize Kopitar, which, in theory would allow Kesler and Henrik Sedin to see easier minutes. Vigneault has his critics, and even I think he can be a frustrating tactician at times (his lurch back into stylistic conservatism this season has probably been counterproductive, for example). But one of the things the Canucks have built their success on over the past few seasons is Vigneault’s ability to take advantage of the Canucks’ superior depth.
If the Kopitar line’s decimation of Pahlsson’s group continues on Friday, however, Vigneault may be forced to use Kesler as a checking centre, and that will ripple throughout lineup. If Kesler is playing tougher minutes dueling with Kopitar, then his offensive potential takes a massive hit. Meanwhile the five and a half minutes Henrik spent skating through Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis evaporates, and he’ll begin to see a steady diet of shifts matched up against Mike Richards instead. All of a sudden Vancouver’s superior depth doesn’t seem so superior…
Remember that this is playoff Vigneault, who deceives, inveigles, and obfuscates. You can’t trust him. When he talks openly about matchups that he’s worried about in the postseason, we’re probably best served by paying closer attention to what he omits or glosses over, rather than what he’s explicit about. Richards and Penner had storybook returns to the postseason on Wednesday night, but the real issues lie elsewhere.