Up, Up and Away
Coming off a stretch of 16 consecutive games within the Pacific Time Zone – 13 of which were played at home – opening a road trip in front of 22,000 crazed fans in one of the league’s more difficult road environments presented a firm challenge for a Los Angeles Kings team jockeying for playoff positioning and battling a condensed late-season schedule.
Players speak of the advantage provided by opening a road trip with a win, and this five-game, six-city, 10-day swing opened at the home of the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks.
Battling three separate deficits within the game, rookie Tyler Toffoli scored an equalizer midway through the third period before Dustin Brown buried the game-winner with 87 seconds remaining as part of a 5-4 Kings victory.
Three nights and two cities later – hello, Mr. President – the trip continued with a bruising 4-2 win in St. Louis that saw the team open the scoring, withstand a physical and concerted push by the Blues and win on late goals by Mike Richards and Justin Williams as part of “one heck of a road effort,” as described by Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi.
“What you love about them is the way they’ve grown,” Lombardi said. “The two stages that if it’s going to be physical, first off, you don’t change your game. Secondly, you push back. And what you saw was that’s the growth of the team. It’s physical, it ain’t changing our game, and we’re going to push back.”
Though the team had sustained road success under previous head coach Terry Murray, that identity was strengthened a year ago under Darryl Sutter when the Kings, an eight-seed, did not lose a postseason road game until they had already collected three wins in the Stanley Cup Final. A 10-1 road record during last year’s playoffs was built on the base of a 63-44-16 overall road record through the three regular seasons prior.
When the team returned home to Los Angeles early Wednesday morning, a 3-1-1 road trip elicited a sense of satisfaction counterbalanced by disappointment over dropping the final game of the swing in a 3-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. What could’ve been a “killer” road trip – a word used by Rob Scuderi after the shootout loss in Minnesota last Saturday – instead was merely a very good trip.
“Could’ve won every game,” Sutter said. “We played well enough to win every game. That’s the way it goes.”
The team was consistently competitive when it wasn’t flat out dictating the pace of play over the five games. Until Keith Yandle scored with 2:53 remaining in Tuesday’s loss, the Kings never fell behind by two goals. They trailed for a grand total of 52:16 of a possible 305 minutes.
Sutter referenced standout goaltending and a strong defensive structure that keeps a team from sitting back on its heels as recipes for road success. He also alluded to the Kings’ marquee players extracting balanced home-road production that not all skilled players around the league are able to generate.
“It’s a fact there are players in the league – and there always have been – that play better at home than they did on the road,” Sutter said. “I really don’t want to get into the specifics of it, but there are skilled players that need to play in their own building, and we take pride in our team, quite honestly, of being a good team, not being where players are highlighted because they’re stars. And that’s my responsibility, trying to get everybody to play like that. Quite honest, this team is pretty fortunate that the star players play a well-rounded game.”
Among the team’s key players known for a “well-rounded game” with a remarkable home-road balance is Dustin Brown, whose 382 career points are split evenly with 191 coming at home and 191 coming on the road. He has played nine fewer road games than home games.
“I think we’ve shown that we’re comfortable on the road,” Jeff Carter said. “I think any time you get away – not to say that there are distractions at home – but you don’t really have anything to think about besides hockey. Guys are focused, and they’re ready to go every game.”
It certainly didn’t seem that way as the team dropped to 5-8-1 on the road following back-to-back losses to divisional rivals Phoenix and San Jose last month. The lack of success became a topic of consideration within the confines of the dressing room, according to Rob Scuderi.
“Darryl mentioned it maybe a couple weeks ago,” Scuderi said.
“He had talked about the road record and how it affects your spot in the standings, and if you go in the playoffs, you’re going to have to play in road buildings. He mentioned it was something that we did good last year and something we have to work on right now. Starting with the first game in Chicago, it was maybe not a picture-perfect game strategy-wise but you get the job done.”
There are still several splits that the team will need to improve upon should they embark on a deep playoff run. Penalty killing and goaltending have still been disproportionately better at home. L.A.’s 13th-ranked penalty killing unit ranks eighth at home and 21st on the road, while Jonathan Quick’s save percentage is .908 at home and .888 on the road. His 1.87 home goals against average is 1.21 goals better than his 3.08 road goals against average.
Despite Tuesday’s loss, the 3-1-1 trip is among the more productive five-game swings in club history. Only once, in 2009-10, has the team produced a perfect 5-0-0 trip. There have been four 4-1-0 trips and three other 3-1-1 trips.
But considering the schedule strength of the trip, which included wins in Chicago and St. Louis, getting seven points out of 10 away from home seemed to be a feat that the players were able to appreciate despite Tuesday’s loss.
“Seven out of 10 [points], that’s pretty good,” Kopitar said. “It’s not the way we wanted to finish, but we had some strong games. We had some character wins.”