28 Days Later: Re-Throning of the Kings
With the Lakers, Clippers and Kings hosting a whopping 28 home games in 28 days from March 11 through April 7 — all happening at Staples Center, which is only a wind-aided Andy Lee punt from Grantland’s headquarters — we couldn’t resist attending these 28 games and writing about as many of them as possible. For Day 1, click here. For Day 2, click here. Here’s Day 3.
Buying season tickets for the L.A. Kings seemed like a good idea during the NBA lockout. It seemed like a great idea in November when there was no basketball, if only because our seats are directly behind one of the goals, and lemme tell you something, there is nothing quite like sitting behind the net at a hockey game. You learn to respect goaltenders (hardest job in sports, hands down); the speed of the game (ridiculous); the sensation of a puck speeding toward your face that gets abruptly stopped by the glass (only you don’t realize it’s been stopped until you hear that gunshot-like sound that stops your heart for a second); and how relentlessly physical professional hockey is (and also, how freaking tough those guys are). There was definitely a “new car smell” to those first few games behind the pipes. I loved them.
Once the NBA season started after Christmas, Kings season tickets started to seem less and less of a good idea — but not for the reasons you’d think. For over three months, the Kings were really, really, really boring to watch. They didn’t have a discernible identity — you wouldn’t call them old, young, good, bad, fast, tough, plodding, lazy, anything. They didn’t fight, didn’t bang bodies, didn’t score, didn’t do anything except play games that ended 1-0 or 2-1. Their best player? Goaltender Jonathan Quick. That’s all you need to know.
These games weren’t just boring because of the lack of goals; hockey is all about creating chances to score, and sometimes those chances are more fun than the goals themselves. The Kings sucked the life out of the crowd because they never really made us feel like a goal might be coming. They just looked like a bunch of guys skating around. Hold on, I have some non-advanced metrics for you: Heading into last night, the Kings had scored 154 goals in 69 games, which averages out to barely two a game (second-lowest in the league). Thanks to Quick, they gave up 145 goals in those 69 games (third-best in the league). Add both numbers together and every Kings game featured about 4.2 goals and 235.3 yawns.
Their best offensive player was and is Anze Kopitar, affectionately called “Kopie” by Kings fans probably a good thing because everyone mangles the Yugoslavian pronunciation of “Anze.” He’s one of those highly skilled centers with quick hands who always seems about two-fifths of a second ahead of everyone else. You wouldn’t call him a sniper, or a Milan Lucic-type power forward, or even a physical specimen like Evgeni Malkin (the best player I’ve caught in person this season, by far). He’s just exceptionally polished. He’s slightly better at face-offs than everyone else. His shots and passes are slightly better. He skates slightly faster and handles the puck slightly better. Even my 6-year-old daughter — who knew nothing about hockey until her first game in November and now enjoys going so much that I’m resigned to meeting a steady stream of boyfriends from 2018 through 2030 who smell like stale hockey equipment — demanded a Kopie jersey within two periods under the always-defensible “little kids are front-runners” corollary. Little kids always gravitate to the best players. It’s just one of their talents, right up there with being blunt and being able to eat multiple desserts without throwing up.
Still, you’d never call Kopie dominant (he’s not even in the top 20 for points), and when Mike Richards (their big summer import) turned out to be good (not great), everyone knew the Kings were one impact scorer short. Making matters worse: They played with a general lethargy that made you say, “I don’t know enough about hockey to know when a team should fire its coach, but wow, it sure feels like the Kings should fire their coach.” Sure enough, they fired Terry Murray a few weeks ago and replaced him with one of the 25 Sutter brothers. Suddenly we were treated to more fights, more checks, more chippiness and just about everything else that makes hockey more fun to watch except, you know, goals.
By February, it started to look like the Kings might miss the playoffs by a point or two. A worst-case scenario for their season-ticket holders, obviously. Saying there’s a difference between hockey’s regular season and postseason is like saying there’s a difference between dry-humping and actual sex. Just when I was starting to lose hope of seeing a playoff game, they traded defenseman Jack Johnson and a no. 1 pick for forward Jeff Carter, the former Philly star who had been struggling on a lousy Columbus team. That just shows you how desperate the Kings were — as recently as October, Johnson, Kopitar, Quick and Drew Doughty were considered the foundation of a potential Cup contender. (Important note: I never understood everyone’s fascination with Johnson. I probably saw him play 12 times and rarely if ever noticed him. That can’t be a good sign. And don’t get me started on Doughty.) Everyone hoped Carter would re-create some of his old Philly magic with Richards (his former teammate). But you never know until you see it.
During an eventual 5-2 victory over the Red Wings Tuesday night, I finally caught Carter in person. He stood out for a variety of reasons: He wears the no. 77 jersey (a number that just pops); he’s bigger than every relevant King except Kopitar and fan unfavorite Dustin Penner (who might be made of Krispy Kreme); he’s one of those natural scoring predators who circles the net with extra purpose; he’s a much smarter passer than I expected (hockey’s like basketball — the good passers just jump out at you); he kills penalties (something this casual hockey fan didn’t expect); and basically, you notice him every time he’s skating around. That’s an underrated quality for an 82-game season, if only because every team needs a couple of guys who make you say, “Hey, it’s that guy! He might do something!” just to keep you on your toes. Carter also tipped the scales for the Kings in this respect: Now that they have two scoring lines, it’s easier for them to score (glad I’m here to point this out) and creates a different level of pressure.
Here’s the thing: Hockey is both complicated and astonishingly simple. It’s really about pressure over time. (Copyright: Andy Dufresne’s rock hammer.) You try to create as many quality scoring chances as possible, as consistently as possible, while preventing as many quality scoring chances as possible. (Again, I’m not breaking ground here. Bear with me.) You’re riding the percentages, almost like poker on ice. Before Carter, the Kings only seemed dangerous on a power play or if Kopitar was skating around. You could actually see opposing goalies perk up specifically for those two situations. But Carter’s addition made everything fall into place — for the first time, the Kings felt complete to me. Their nightly fate didn’t just directly hinge on Kopie, Quick and the referees.
Even my daughter noticed. I told her to check out the new guy right before the opening face-off and didn’t mention him again. In the second period, as I was plowing through an Oreo McFlurry (the most underrated dessert out there) and she was annihilating a cheery Icee (totally overrated), she mumbled through frozen red vampire lips, “I like the new guy!”
“Yeah. He’s really good.”
“Uh-oh. You’re not trading in your Kopie jersey for 77, are you?”
“What does trading in mean?”
“I mean, you’re not getting rid of your Kopie jersey for a 77 —”
“DAD!!!! I’d never get rid of Kopie!”
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re loyal.”
[A few seconds pass.]
“But maybe we could get a 77 jersey and I could rotate them or something?”
Congratulations, Jeff Carter you passed the Daughter Test. Now get the Kings an 8-seed so I can take her to a playoff game, please.