Golden Knights stun Kings, eye first playoff sweep

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We’re far beyond the point of debating if the Vegas Golden Knights are “for real,” but the expansion team’s first-year accomplishments keep stacking up to a staggering degree.

The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs haven’t ruined the party. In Game 1, the Golden Knights grabbed their first-ever goal, win, and shutout in beating the Los Angeles Kings 1-0. Game 2 brought great drama, as even though Jonathan Quick played an incredible game, Vegas ultimately broke through for the 2-1 win in the waning minutes of double overtime. The Golden Knights leveraged their home-ice advantage during those first two games, but it turns out that a change of venue couldn’t stop them.

This time around, Marc-Andre Fleury was the goalie who was stealing the show, stopping 37 out of 39 shots on goal as the Golden Knights pushed the Kings to the brink of elimination with a 3-2 in.

Yes, that’s right, the VGK are now up 3-0 in this series. In their first crack at a playoff series, they’re already getting their first opportunity to complete a sweep in the postseason.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

At this point, it’s insufficient to call the Golden Knights “quick learners.” Instead, their prodigies on the Mozartian scale; maybe their mascot should be Doogie Howser?

Speaking of quick, that’s how this game turned, echoing the Penguins running away with their contest and the Wild doing the same today.

The Kings carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, but Cody Eakin buried a great David Perron pass to complete a busy sequence, tying things up 6:10 in. The dizzying turn of events happened later, as James Neal followed up his wonderful assist on the overtime game-winner in Game 2 to a sneaky goal to put Vegas up 2-1 with 5:37 left in the third:

Neal’s goal is the rare one Quick would want back, although maybe that’s only relative to this series, as it was a pretty nifty move and release. Just 21 seconds later, the Golden Knights stunned the Kings as Reilly Smith made an outstanding play to set up William Karlsson for what would end up being the game-winner.

Anze Kopitar gave the Kings a chance with a wonderful showing of hand-eye coordination for his first goal of the series with a little more than two minutes remaining in regulation, yet it wasn’t enough to nullify that two-goal burst.

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The Kings enjoyed a far better showing in Game 3 than in Game 2, demonstrating the difference that Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin can make in a variety of situations. Of course, the Golden Knights’ big addition mattered as well, as Perron generated that sweet assist on the 1-1 Eakin goal.

Vegas isn’t just sticking with the Kings from a finesse standpoint, either. This has been a physical, sometimes grinding series, and the Golden Knights continue to match L.A. halfway. Between the heated exchanges and the controversial suspension, it’s clear that they’ve had Doughty’s attention the entire way.

Now, the next and biggest challenge so far: eliminating a team on the brink of their season ending.

So far, the Golden Knights have been exemplary in passing these tests, although the Kings have provide very little breathing room on the scoreboard. Vegas would be foolish to rest on its laurels, either, as they merely need to ask the San Jose Sharks how dangerous this Kings animal can get when it’s backed into a corner.

Game 4 airs on NBCSN on Tuesday, with puck drop slated for 10:30 p.m. ET.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights, Kings got key players back in Game 3

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Game 3 of the Vegas Golden Knights – Los Angeles Kings series should have a different feel to it, and not just because the venue’s shifted to Los Angeles.

Both teams get key players back in their lineups, which has to be especially welcome after Game 2 almost made it to a third OT period before Erik Haula put Vegas up 2-0 in the series.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH GAME 3 LIVE]

The Kings probably feel the most relief. After being severely out-shot in Game 2 with Drew Doughty suspended, they’re getting Doughty back, but that’s not all. Jake Muzzin is also returning from his injury absence, and Muzzin – Doughty served as the Kings’ top pairing to begin Game 3.

Vegas gets an important player back, too, as David Perron returns to their mix. Despite being limited to 70 regular-season games, Perron finished third in scoring for the Golden Knights, collecting 66 points (16 goals, 50 assists). Perron gives the Golden Knights a dangerous additional scorer beyond James Neal and the dangerous-looking trio of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith.

So far, this has been a very low-scoring series, yet it’s also been thrilling and physical. It should be interesting to see how this influx of talent might change the flow of play, matchups, and other aspects of the series.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

LA Kings suddenly have plenty of issues on defense

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The Los Angeles Kings are down 1-0 in their first-round series to the Vegas Golden Knights and things have only gotten more difficult ahead of Game 2 on Friday night.

The Kings will be without Drew Doughty, because he was suspended for an illegal check to the head of Golden Knights forward William Carrier. As you’d imagine, not having Doughty is a major problem for them. On top of that suspension, they may not have Jake Muzzin (upper body) and Derek Forbort (lower body) at their disposal. Muzzin missed Game 1 and the final five games of the regular season, while Forbort missed the last two games of the season and Game 1, too.

Let’s start with Doughty, who is the most important blue liner of the three. The 28-year-old played in all 82 games during the regular season. He averaged almost 27 minutes of ice time over those games and while his team got 50.01 percent of the shot attempts overall, they got 52.76 percent of them when Doughty was on the ice. There aren’t too many defenseman better than him, so the fact that the Kings won’t be able to rely on him for one playoff game is a major disadvantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Muzzin, who averaged 21:39 during the season, also racked up an impressive eight goals and 42 points in 2017-18. With Muzzin on the ice, the Kings actually controlled slightly more of the shot attempts (52.93 percent) than when Doughty was on the ice. The 29-year-old hasn’t been ruled out for Game 2 yet, but he still hasn’t been able to take contact during practice.

Forbort isn’t as big of a name as the other two, but he still logged a significant amount of ice (averaged 20:47 throughout the regular season). He isn’t as gifted offensively as Doughty and Muzzin, but he still managed to post a Corsi For% number higher than 50 percent (50.33). Forbort played over 829 minutes with Drew Doughty, which means the Kings will be missing their top pairing in Game 2 and arguably their second-best defenseman in Muzzin.

As the old saying goes, “you’re not in trouble until you lose a game on home ice.” But heading back to Los Angeles down 0-2 is less than an ideal spot to be in when you’re playing an expansion team that is faster and deeper than you up front.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Kings’ Drew Doughty suspended one game for illegal check to head

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The Los Angeles Kings are already down a game in their first-round playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights, and if they are going to even the series on Friday night they are going to have to do so without their top defenseman.

The NHL department of player safety announced on Thursday evening that Drew Doughty has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Golden Knights forward William Carrier in Game 1.

The incident took place midway through the third period. Carrier briefly exited the game but quickly returned. Doughty was not penalized for the hit during the game.

Here is a look at the play, as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Doughty’s absence for Game 2 is going to be significant for two reasons. First, he is probably the best shutdown, defensive defenseman in the NHL and is coming off another regular season that will get him plenty of Norris Trophy attention.

The other reason is the Kings are already dealing with an injury to defenseman Jake Muzzin as he missed the first game of the series and has not played since March 26. A depleted defense against a fast Vegas team that finished the regular season fourth in the NHL in goals scored when you are already down in the series is not a great situation to be in.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Golden Knights vs. Kings: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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On one side, you have one of the teams of this generation, a Los Angeles Kings squad with two Stanley Cup victories on its resume. On the other, you have the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion franchise riding a magical run to a Pacific Division title during their first season.

If that’s not a sexy enough narrative to build intrigue, consider the clashing styles.

While the Kings have opened things up since moving on from Darryl Sutter, they’re still a button-downed team, they still allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season (202). Meanwhile, the Golden Knights have hit the ground running. Whether you think they’re for real or that their pixie dust is running out, there’s little denying that Vegas pushes the pedal to the metal. Few teams push the pace like Vegas, so it’s little surprise that the Golden Knights finished in the top five in scoring.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Golden Knights broke just about every record imaginable for an expansion team, especially in the NHL. They finished the season with a 51-24-7 record for 109 standings points, trailing only Nashville and Winnipeg in the West.

Despite Jeff Carter missing a big portion of 2017-18, the Kings secured the West’s first wild card spot after missing the playoffs last season and seeing massive front office changes. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty carried the Kings to a 45-29-8 record for 98 points.

It’s true that Vegas finished 11 points ahead of Los Angeles, yet they were closely matched during head-to-head meetings. The Golden Knights won the first two games of their season series (Nov. 19 in regulation, Dec. 28 in overtime) and then the Kings won the last two (Feb. 26 in OT, regulation win one day later).

Let’s break down what could be the least predictable series of the first round.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Vegas: The Golden Knights combined two parts former Panthers (Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault) and a light-scoring former Blue Jacket (William Karlsson) to form one of the deadliest lines in the NHL. Karlsson topped the Golden Knights with a stunning 43-goal, 78-point season. Marchessault wasn’t far behind, while Smith was very productive but limited a bit by injuries.

Like Karlsson, Erik Haula enjoyed the season of his life – or a huge breakthrough? – by scoring 29 goals and 55 points.

More familiar faces rounded things out nicely. James Neal extended his streak of 20+ goal-seasons with 25, while David Perron finished third on the team with 66 points. Motivation has been an asset for Vegas all season long, and Karlsson, Perron, and Neal rank among the forwards who still have new contracts to earn.

Los Angeles: Anze Kopitar likely deserves more Hart buzz than he gets, but then again, isn’t that often the story with the Kings’ perennial Selke candidate? He generated a whopping 92 points, blowing away his previous career-high of 81. The second-closest Kings scorer among forwards was Dustin Brown, who rode shotgun with Kopitar to a redemptive 61-point season. Three Kings forwards passed 20 goals in 2017-18: Kopitar (35), Brown (28), and Tyler Toffoli (24).

That said, Jeff Carter was certainly on pace to do so. Despite being limited to 27 games played, Carter scored 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points.

Advantage: Golden Knights, although Kopitar is most likely to be the best forward on the ice.

Getty Images

DEFENSEMEN

Vegas: The beauty of the expansion experience is that players received the best opportunities of their NHL careers, and that seemed especially true on defense. Colin Miller (41 points, 19:20 minutes per game), Nate Schmidt (36 points, 22:14 ATOI), Shea Theodore (29 points, 20:21 ATOI), Deryk Engelland (23 points, 20:16 ATOI), and Brayden McNabb (15 points, 20:09 ATOI) all enjoyed some of the best work of their careers.

As a group, they enabled Gerard Gallant to unleash the hounds without suffering too much in their own end.

Kings: Released from the shackles of Sutter’s system, Drew Doughty generated 60 points this season, the best output of his impressive career. Doughty earns his hype, while the Kings also employ two underrated blueliners in Jake Muzzin (42 points, strong possession stats) and Alec Martinez (25 points, though with shaky possession numbers). As mentioned earlier, the Kings limited opponents scoring thanks to some great high-end players.

Depth might be something the Golden Knights can exploit, though. Dion Phaneuf generated OK offense since joining the Kings (10 points in 26 games), but the big-name defenseman continues to leak chances. If Vegas can force Los Angeles into trading blows rather than slowing things down, it could be a long couple of weeks for players like Phaneuf. That’s especially true if Muzzin can’t play due to injuries.

Advantage: Kings. Few defensemen are prepared to log huge minutes at a high level like Doughty, who’s easily the best defenseman in this series.

GOALIES

Vegas: What a weird year of goalies for Vegas, especially since they generally did such a great job weathering all the turbulence. Five different netminders suited up for Las Vegas, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban both suffered through injuries, occasionally at the same time.

Fleury generated the best save percentage of his career, posting a .927 mark while going 29-13-4 in 46 games. He’d be getting serious consideration for the Vezina if injuries didn’t railroad the quantity to go with all of that quality.

“MAF” has quietly been impressive, for the most part, lately. He’s generated a .920 or better season in three of his last four campaigns. Even last year (.909 save percentage), Fleury helped the Penguins with excellent postseason work.

Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick enjoyed one of the best years of his career, going 33-28-3 with a strong .921 save percentage.

Much like Fleury, Quick has been a polarizing goalie. Analytics-minded fans have often criticized Quick, while mainstream pundits sometimes exaggerate his accomplishments. In 2017-18, Quick earned the accolades.

Advantage: Golden Knights. Fleury’s generated better numbers this season and in recent years. Both goalies have plenty of postseason experience, so they have the confidence of their teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Vegas: The Golden Knights’ power play generated 53 goals, gave up five shorthanded tallies, and enjoyed a 21.4-percent success rate (tied for eighth in the NHL). Their PK gave up 44 goals while scoring eight shorties, killing 81.4 percent of their penalties (tied for 10th). Overall, special teams is a net positive (+12) for Vegas.

Los Angeles: The Kings topped the NHL by killing 85 percent of their penalties, while their 39 power-play goals allowed was second-best in the NHL (Los Angeles also scored five shorthanded goals). Los Angeles scored 49 power-play goals and allowed four shorthanded goals, generating a PP% of 20.4 (tied for 17th). Consider that a net positive of +10.

Advantage: Kings. The Golden Knights get the nod for balance, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that the Kings boast one of the best penalty kill units in the NHL. Like many facets of this series, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Vegas: You’d think that the Kings will be on their best behavior but …

/Cuts to a shot of a car rolling into Sin City, with bright lights blinking and casinos never sleeping. Vince Vaughn may be in this montage.

Home-ice advantage could be significant for Vegas. The question is: how significant will it be?

Los Angeles: Normally, when you hear the word “experience” thrown around, it’s tough to resist rolling your eyes.

You can keep a straight face this time. The Kings have two Cups to their name, and in each case, they didn’t exactly set the NHL on fire during the regular season. (This is a team with two championship banners and zero division titles during that run, after all.)

The Golden Knights are in their first season against a team that knows all about the pressures, the grind, and the matchups that come with playoff hockey. Maybe that veteran edge will allow the Kings to control the tempo?

PREDICTION

Kings in six games. The Golden Knights are the ultimate underdogs, so why not keep that going by doubting them even though they won their division and hold home-ice advantage against Los Angeles? This could be a weird one, even by first-round standards.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.