A lot of adjectives are used to describe the Los Angeles Kings' style of play.
They are physical. They are tough. They are big. They play a "heavy" game. In the end, all of it pretty much means the same thing, and it conjures up images of a burly, rough and tumble team that imposes its will on its opponents and wears them down physically.
But they're a lot more than that. Along with their size and all of the physical play, the Kings also have a ton of skill, and that is still their most important trait.
By this point everybody already knows about Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Drew Doughty and Justin Williams. But part of what makes the Kings so dangerous, both now and in the future, is the young duo of Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. They not only bring some skill and speed to the lineup, but they're currently doing it on entry-level contracts that cost peanuts against the salary cap, which allows the Kings to load up and spend in other areas.
Stanley Cup Final
Stanley Cup Final
They're also causing headaches for the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.
It's no secret at this point that Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi is currently going through one of the worst stretches he's had over the past couple of years. The line that's been giving him and his partner, Ryan McDonagh, the most problems has been the trio of Jeff Carter, Pearson and Toffoli. With the Kings back at home for Game 5 and getting the benefit of the last change, it might be in Darryl Sutter's best interest to look for that matchup as often as possible.
It's certainly worked in their favor over the first four games.
For the series, when Pearson and Toffoli are on the ice, the Kings have attempted 59 of the 99 even-strength shot attempts that have taken place and have outscored the Rangers 2-0. In a series that has had three games decided by a single goal (and a fourth game where the Rangers failed to score even once) that's a pretty big advantage in the Kings' favor.
That advantage is even bigger when they're on the ice against not only Girardi, but also the Girardi and McDonagh pairing. The table below breaks down the shot attempt numbers for the Rangers when each combination of players is on the ice. Let's just say the ice is tilted in an obvious direction.
That's just complete domination and a big reason why the Kings have not allowed an even-strength goal in the series with any of Carter, Pearson or Toffoli on the ice, while scoring four. It's not just that the Kings have been able to score some goals with them on the ice, it's also the fact that they're not allowing the Rangers to do anything.
My first instinct, given the struggles of Girardi and how he has been the common denominator in the success of that Kings line, was that Los Angeles was targeting him and attacking his side of the ice. And to a point, they have been, whether it's been through a controlled entry or a dump-in (which the Kings tend to do a lot of) toward his side of the ice.
But they've had their share of success going after McDonagh as well. Let's take a look at a few examples.
Here we see Pearson catching McDonagh in a moment of indecisiveness and absolutely blowing past him for a chance.
Late in the second period of the Rangers' Game 4 win, Carter gets stopped by a Henrik Lundqvist toe save after making Girardi look like he's skating in quicksand. The Rangers still had a one-goal lead at that point and were getting dangerously close to letting yet another two-goal lead slip away.
And here we see an odd-man rush with Pearson, Carter and Toffoli going up against Girardi and McDonagh and making it look easy.
Because the Kings don't always score a ton of goals or play in a lot of high-scoring games (their current playoff run is the exception to that, of course) it's sometimes easy to overlook just how aggressive they are, especially on the forecheck. This isn't a team that simply sits back and waits for you to come to them. And that forecheck has also been too much for the Rangers to handle at times when it comes to exiting the zone.
Girardi's turnover in overtime of Game 1 that led to Justin Williams' winning goal was created in part because of some pressure from Pearson (and because he fell down). Later in the series, this scoring chance that was shut down by Lundqvist happened after a failed Girardi clearing attempt was picked off by Anze Kopitar.
Earlier in the series, particularly after Game 1, there was some talk about the Rangers' team speed up front and how it could play to their advantage. But in the end, it's been the speed of the Kings, particularly their two young forwards, that has been creating problems for the Rangers.
This should serve as two different lessons.
First, it should be another reminder that the NHL game is constantly evolving and defensemen need to be able to move and can't just be stationary monsters who stand in front of the net, throwing their weight around as "crease clearers." Those are the players who have been struggling the most in the playoffs (and it's also true for the Kings when it comes to Robyn Regehr, and at times Willie Mitchell) and Girardi is right at the top of that list.
It also shows that teams shouldn't be afraid to rely on younger, inexperienced players in big situations just as long as the skill is there. Before these playoffs, Pearson and Toffoli had combined to play in just 97 regular season games in the NHL, scoring only 17 goals (with 14 belonging to Toffoli).
Right now, they're two of the biggest thorns in the side of New York's highest-paid defensive pairing.