The Los Angeles Kings have looked dominant at various stretches of this postseason. The one thing they have really not done yet, not really, is take control of a series. Sure, they've won all three series and even won four straight games in the first round, but they have also lost nine games over the course of this Stanley Cup run. As good as they've been, the Kings' playoff hopes are in a constant state of precariousness. Though they've come out successful on the other side so often including in Game 1 of the Final, they can't rely on that against the New York Rangers with the Stanley Cup on the line.
Personnel from various clubs that got bounced this postseason often lamented their teams' lack of a killer instinct. The strange thing about the Kings is that they don't have that killer instinct either, or at least haven't this postseason, but are still at this point.
They've gotten by on survival instinct, which can probably be just as important. As long as the end result is optimal, you normally care less about how you get there. But comments from the Kings coming out of Game 1 suggest they are concerned about how they get there. They know that playing from behind as often as they have may not work against a team like the Rangers.
With a 1-0 series lead, thanks to a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1, the Kings have a real opportunity to take control before the series heads to New York. They've been in this position before, putting the Anaheim Ducks in a 2-0 hole before choking it away with three straight losses. Have they learned from their mistakes?
Unquestionably, the Kings have faced a tough road to get to the Stanley Cup Final, dispatching the offensive juggernaut that is the San Jose Sharks, the rough-and-tumble and high-scoring Ducks and defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
What they haven't faced until now is an elite goaltender like Henrik Lundqvist. That's the big difference between the Rangers and the three teams the Kings came back against. An elite goaltender changes the margin for error.
Antti Niemi posted a paltry .884 save percentage in the opening-round series and even gave way to Alex Stalock for a game. The Kings chased Jonas Hiller in the second round, as he made way for 20-year-old John Gibson, relatively unproven on the NHL stage. Then the Kings got to Corey Crawford, who posted an .878 save percentage in the Western Conference finals.
A weaker goalie at the other end of the ice helps make those comeback bids less daunting.
Lundqvist has a .928 save percentage and has allowed just eight third-period goals this postseason. That's not a goalie you want to test with holding leads because more often than not, he will. He didn't in Game 1, but that can't be an expectation the Kings have going forward and it doesn't sound like they do.
So the Kings are going to have to find that killer instinct. The longer they let a team like the Rangers hang around, the more of a chance they give Lundqvist to steal the series from them.
Part of that responsibility is going to lay with Jonathan Quick. He owns a lot of responsibility for the Kings' inconsistencies this postseason. In nine losses in these playoffs, Quick has put up a shocking .855 save percentage. You obviously expect a goalie's save percentage to be bad in losses, but this is particularly putrid.
Conversely, Quick has had a .940 save percentage in LA's 13 wins and he was pretty good in Game 1, especially early when the Rangers were pouring it on. If he is at even career-average form, the Kings are going to be way tougher to beat.
The Kings also have to get better in the first period in terms of allowing goals. Los Angeles has allowed 23 goals in the opening 20 minutes throughout the playoffs, an average of just over one first-period goal per game. Now, the Kings have managed that well enough because they've also scored 24 first-period goals this year, but again, this is a different series.
The Rangers are a terrific first-period team with 23 goals scored, an average of 1.09 per first period this postseason, while only allowing 11 opening-frame goals. Again, the Lundqvist factor looms large. If the Rangers get a start as good as they did in Game 1, the Kings continue to put themselves in an awkward position in trying to close out this series.
So how do they do it? For one, the Kings have to find a way to attack each game from the opening faceoff. They really haven't done that often enough. Now that they've gotten a look at the Rangers' speed, the Kings may want to be more conservative in their forechecking schemes and not allow the Rangers' transition game to get any traction. That's where they can get burned.
The Kings' ability in their own end might alleviate some of the pressure on their forecheck. Los Angeles' defense was good at retrieving pucks in the defensive zone, beating out Rangers forwards on seemingly almost every dump-in and getting the puck turned up ice quickly. The Rangers were able to take advantage when Kings forwards over-pursued, allowing the Rangers' transition game to get pucks up ice without much resistance. Limiting those speed chances by playing a touch more conservatively could lead to less defensive mistakes.
Should the Rangers continue to get the kind of start they did in the first period, get the consistent performances they've seen most of the postseason from Lundqvist and tighten up just a bit defensively, they're going to have more of a chance.
The Kings really can't let that happen. As long as they get off to stronger starts and get even average goaltending from Quick, they probably won't have much of a problem dispatching the Rangers. It's easier said than done of course, but everything has been easier than the road the Kings took to this point.