What we learned from Sunday's series-extending Game 4 win for the Phoenix Coyotes:
A Little From Column A: Well, that looked familiar, didn't it? With their haunches pressed firmly against the wall, Phoenix finally offered up some of that Coyote Ugly hockey that had been so effective in its dismissals of the Blackhawks and Predators.
Not that it was as seamless as in those earlier series. The rope-a-dope was a little loose in the first period, allowing the Kings a few higher quality chances than the Yotes would have liked, but they slowly settled things down and began dictating the pace. They took away the Kings' speed advantage by clogging the neutral zone. They took away the lanes with sticks and legs, forcing the Kings to either blast shots wide, or turn over the puck.
And they waited and waited and waited for their own offensive opportunities, finally capitalizing on a mental lapse by Jonathan Quick (Shane Doan, his first of the series, at 14:19 of the first), then on a shot right off a face-off win by Antoine Vermette (Doan again, 11:10 into the second).
And that's how this team wins games.
It made for an unbearably dull contest, but the Coyotes have made it clear this spring that they will take the win instead of the style points any time.
Of course, it might also have been ...
A Little From Column B: To a man, the Kings spoke before Game 4 about not taking the Coyotes lightly, about how focused they were on finishing the series, about how they would not sink into complacency.
Then they offered up their most languorous performance of the playoffs.
The fourth game is the toughest to win? Yeah, that's a cliché for a reason. Still, the Kings had spent three games dragging these dogs out behind the barn ... and then they couldn't pull the trigger when it was time to put them down.
Remember the regular-season Kings who needed the final weekend of the season to clinch a berth in the playoffs? That's the team that showed up this afternoon. Solid in their own zone, but no fury at the other end. They created pockets of effectiveness early, getting pucks on target from the point while bodies dashed in front of Mike Smith (36 saves), but there was no finish.
And slowly, the intensity was sapped from their game. Their cycle, so obvious in the first three games, was almost absent in this contest as they failed to kickstart it with battles won down low. The forecheck? Outside of a few solid shifts from the fourth line, it was a non-factor.
The Kings skated into an arena that was crackling with energy and let it fade away. All they needed was one big shift, one big hit, one big something to rev it back up again.
And ... they came up small.
The Kings can say they weren't complacent, but they sure looked the part.
Maybe It Does Matter, After All: I was all set to write about how sick I was of writing about how ineffective the power play has been for the Kings ... until this 0-for-6 performance brought the point sharply back into focus.
To be fair, their sixth man advantage covered the final seven seconds of the game, but fairness is hardly the point. This unit is beyond stagnant. It's become a drag, a morale crusher.
It hadn't caught up to the Kings yet, but it surely cost them on Sunday. On an afternoon when little else was going right, this was the chance for the power play to step up and invigorate the troops, either by scoring goals or, at least, creating momentum, something to build off moving forward.
The Coyotes even played along, committing several undisciplined fouls that set the stage for the Kings to strike back. Consider the fourth man advantage, less than two minutes after Doan had made it 2-0 in the second. Keith Yandle goes in the box for senselessly popping Colin Fraser in the mush, gift wrapping a comeback starter for Los Angeles. What do they do with it? They settle for one shot, a harmless 50-foot wrister from Justin Williams, before Alec Martinez nullifies the final 45 seconds with a lazy holding penalty.
That's just the way it's been going for a power play that's only worth noting when the opposition is down two men. All that talent and what do you get? No spark. No creativity. No goals.
It's hard to imagine the Kings making any changes if they win it all, but if they somehow falter between now and the raising of the Cup, you have to think assistant coach Jamie Kompon, the architect of the unit, will pay the price.
Few Saving Graces: For a game that saw just two goals scored, there sure was a lot of sloppy goaltending.
Smith was fortunate to take so many of the Kings' 36 shots right in the logo. It seemed like anything directed near his feet was handled as gracefully as a ticking package in an old Three Stooges short. Time and again he left pucks bouncing near his boots, where he was bailed out either by the stellar positioning of his blueliners or by the inability of L.A.'s forwards to hit the net (they missed 28 times -- seven more than the Coyotes landed at the other end).
He got the W, and that's all that mattered on the afternoon, but Smith allowed too many easy opportunities for second chances. Look for the Kings to continue trying to put pucks into his feet in Game 5 when the bounces might just even up.
At least Smith was better than Quick, who continues to be part of the chorus rather than a lead in this series. His blunder of the day wasn't quite as embarrassing as the center-ice goal he allowed in Game 1, but it was far more costly. Misreading a failed pass that clearly was about to go for icing, Quick came out to play the puck, negating the call. He then sent a soft clear up the boards that was easily picked off by Ray Whitney. The winger, who played his best hockey of the series, found Doan alone down low, setting him up for the darting backhander that slid under Quick's arm for the 1-0 lead.
Mental mistakes are understandable when a player's under duress, but there was no pressure on Quick either to play the puck, or to put it where he did. Focus has been an issue for him in this series. He'll need to be sharper in Game 5 to prevent Phoenix from extending the series further.
Made For Hollywood: Dave Tippett complained after Game 3 that the Kings were embellishing to draw calls, but the most effective, and prolific, actor in these playoffs might be his own goalie.
Full marks then to a wandering Smith, who drew a goaltender interference call on Williams by sliding in front of the winger and giving the appearance of being of being blocked in his return to the crease. It was a subtle performance, far more nuanced than, say, his tortured gyrations after being grazed by Dwight King in Game 2, but it sealed the deal.
Smith has to be careful, of course. Officials hate being shown up, and it might mean a borderline call is overlooked in the future. But for today it worked, leading to Phoenix's first power-play goal of the series and the first allowed by the Kings' penalty kill since Game 5 in the Vancouver series.