Photos by “Lisa Gansky” (Muzzin), “Michael Miller” (Stralman), via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author
Regardless of what a player might say in their interview, hockey is a self-centered game. Players see the game, experience the game from their perspective, measure it more by what they did than what the team accomplished, and carry with them the scrutiny of millions of people that watched them do it. Any star player will tell you, there are countless people who will tell them or ask them what they did, right after they did it. Why are player interviews so bland? Well, part of it is the need to not make waves, because that can come to bear on a lot of people beyond the player, but they also convey a sense of, “I just did it. You saw it. We’re trying to help the team win. What else is there to say?”
Each player has a particular window into the game; speaking from personal experience, there is no greater perspective than that of the supporting defenseman, the guy who covers the back of the other guy. They play deeper, follow the play rather than lead it, contain the offensive zone, and otherwise are so close to the game it’s remarkable to find them involved in so little of it. They are the eyes and abilities the goaltender wished they had: seeing the offense up-close, relaxing back to slow the opposing attack, covering in front, clearing the crease. Rather than focus on the comprehensive, this Game Three review focuses on two players who seem nearly inconsequential at times; some observers might even say they “disappear” in games. Of course, Anton Stralman and Jake Muzzin are there, they are always there, but you have to look to see them.
Anton Stralman’s First Period
Stralman’s first action is facing a charging Jarrett Stoll as Stoll attempts to enter the Rangers zone with the puck – Stralman steers him to the boards and Stoll gives up the puck. Later, Stralman gets the puck in his own corner and is bumped off by Mike Richards. He moves back to position to the right of his net, and leaves the ice soon after.
His next shift begins with an own-zone cross-ice pass to Chris Kreider to start the Rangers up into the neutral zone. As the play comes back to the Rangers’ zone, Stralman knocks the puck off the lead King and back to Marian Gaborik; the defenseman follows through by sweeping away Gaborik to the boards. He knocks over Gaborik in the corner. The puck finds its way to Jonathan Quick and Stralman keeps after Gaborik, tying him up and giving him a slight chop as Quick freezes it.
When Stralman returns to the play, he and Staal struggle to clear the zone; when they do, the Kings come back with it, and Stralman is facing Kopitar one-on-one. Kopitar beats Stralman to the outside, but Stralman hangs on and keeps Kopitar from taking it in to the slot. When Tanner Pearson approaches with a similar chance, Stralman wards the young forward off towards the boards, and Pearson cuts loose a relatively innocuous shot that Henrik Lundqvist handles easily.
Late in the period, he gets his first taste of offense, starting a Rangers charge with a long up-ice pass to Mats Zuccarello, then taking it himself up through the neutral zone. The latter attempt, unfortunately, is lost at the opposing blue line. When the Kings try to break out a minute later, Stralman shuts it down by aggressively working Pearson along the boards and trying to freeze the puck. He kicks the puck out of the scrum to a teammate.
When Jeff Carter scores in the dying seconds of the first, Stralman is watching from the bench.
Jake Muzzin’s First Period
Much of Muzzin’s action in the first is sweeping up after others; beginning with scooping up a Ranger dump-in and putting the puck up the boards. He engages a Ranger on a second attack along the boards and attempts to strip the puck, but fails – later retrieves a puck Doughty was able to grab and move along the wall. When the play returns deep in the Kings zone, Muzzin focuses on tying up Kreider, almost too much as he follows Kreider behind the goal line as a different Ranger gets a wraparound opportunity.
Later in the period, Muzzin and Doughty are holding the offensive zone when Doughty gets in trouble at the top – and sends a desperation pass to Muzzin who is also covered. Muzzin quick shovels it deep into the offensive zone and out of trouble. The Rangers ice the puck. The following faceoff, Muzzin tries to contain at the blue line but fumbles the puck; on the other hand, is he able to deflect the Rangers offensive push over to Doughty, who handles it. In the meantime, Muzzin ties up with Derek Dorsett as the puck enters the Kings zone and they both go down in an ugly crash. He keeps after Dorsett in the zone, ties him up, does a lot of stickwork to keep Dorsett under control. Dorsett had provided a valuable screen in Game 1 for a Ryan McDonagh goal, so it’s clear Muzzin is keeping an eye on him.
After a back-and-forth pass with Doughty, the Rangers regain control and Muzzin keeps Martin St. Louis below the goal line; St. Louis gets the puck through to the crease, though, and into trouble for the Kings. Quick helps avert crisis, and Muzzin chases down St. Louis and checks him into the boards. Half-a-minute later, the Rangers are re-entering the zone, but Muzzin shuts down Kreider as Kreider tries to move the puck forward.
The following shift, Muzzin starts with a leave-it pass in his own zone that nobody is jumping on until Justin Williams skates onto it. As the Rangers bring it back towards the Kings’ zone, Benoit Pouliot dumps it past Muzzin, and Quick, who seemed out-of-sync with Muzzin all game, pushes the puck too hard towards Muzzin and it passes Muzzin. He tangles with Dorsett but Dorsett gets the upper hand – thankfully nothing comes of it all. A later offensive-zone faceoff is charged hard by the Rangers, and Muzzin drops back to cushion against the attack. When they ward it off, Muzzin gives Doughty a cross-ice pass that Doughty takes up the ice. Moving into the offensive zone, Muzzin gets an opportunity as he runs an overlap with Anze Kopitar and heads to the opposing corner, but Kopitar doesn’t give it to him and Muzzin gets back into position shortly therafter.
On a late penalty-kill, Muzzin covers Brad Richards in front of the net, then follows him below the goal line. He makes a clear attempt on a bizarre, flashy spinning backhand that goes instead to a Rangers defenseman. The Rangers are unsuccessful on the powerplay, though, and Muzzin leaves the ice.
When Jeff Carter scores in the dying seconds of the first, Muzzin is watching from the bench.
Anton Stralman’s Second Period
It’s at this point that Stralman, literally, starts to lose some time out there.
The Kings gets the puck into the Rangers’ zone early; Dwight King carries the puck and Stralman checks King hard into the corner – but King manages to wriggle away. Stralman eventually gains control of the puck and pauses to let the Rangers set up their transition. He plays it up the boards and the jumping puck lands on Kreider’s tape near the opposing blue line.
Stralman has his man as Mike Richards gets a big opportunity in the slot; Richards continues to dog him with a big hit as Stralman sent the puck behind his own net. Staying back in the ensuing play, Stralman steers another one-on-one to the boards and picks the puck – then sends it up the boards out of harm’s way. He gets his first shot attempt, a wrister from far back in the offensive zone that amounts to nothing.
One more big play in the following shift as McDonagh makes a disastrous turnover in his own zone; Stralman helps tie up the dangerous Kings forwards and the Rangers get away clean. In his final moves, Stralman considers jumping up into the play deep in the offensive zone, then hangs back and makes a big hit at the opposing blue line when the Kings gain possession.
Stralman is on the bench for both of the remaining Kings goals, and has a limited role in the powerplay. A righty shot in a deep righty lineup, his strong defensive work gets him some penalty kill time, and little more.
Jake Muzzin’s Second Period
At the same time Stralman is “disappearing,” Muzzin seems to be a part of everything.
Muzzin shifts around to support early when Doughty moves up in the zone; he corrals the puck when it gets behind Doughty and plays it across to Carter in the neutral zone. As the Kings get a powerplay, a defensive zone faceoff freezes Quick and Muzzin behind the net, and Carl Hagelin runs into Muzzin. Recovered now, the Kings push into the Rangers zone; Muzzin, at the top of the powerplay, makes a nifty pass underneath a Rangers forward to Carter, who makes a smart re-direction that almost gives Lundqvist trouble. On the next possession, Muzzin, Kopitar, and Gaborik make passes up the boards and Muzzin decides to throw a wrister from way back towards the net. St. Louis, about 15 feet away in the high slot, tries to glove the puck, but only succeeds in deflecting it and fooling Lundqvist as the puck hits the back of the cage. Jake Muzzin, the second fiddle to Drew Doughty, now has more goals in these playoffs than Doughty, and more than Muzzin had in the regular season. The NHL playoffs are funny like that.
The euphoria of the goal wearing off, Muzzin drops back into support, picking the puck from Ranger possessions and moving it up the wall. At one point, his man gets a good tip on the puck but it doesn’t get through – at another moment, Muzzin moves Brassard to the boards, but Brassard gets the puck out front and a dangerous shot is kicked out by Quick. The rebound is hard for a tired Muzzin to control, and he’s unable to move it out of danger. A Ranger controls it and gets a good shot through Muzzin, who tries to block it but fails.
For his following shift, Muzzin loses control of a bouncing puck that gets past him, opening up a huge opportunity for Rick Nash. Trying to recover, Muzzin gets back too vigorously and squashes Quick as Nash almost converts a wraparound. Doughty, this time covering Muzzin’s back, gets a hooking penalty as he slows up Nash. The ensuing powerplay ends up being the Rangers’ best, including a number of huge chances. At the end of it, as Muzzin tries to clear the puck, Hagelin slashes Muzzin’s stick in-half and gets called.
A slow latter-half of the period is punctuated by some confident movement forward. Muzzin jumps up in the play a couple of times, though in neither case does the puck go his way. On a backcheck from one of these plays, Muzzin smartly strips a completely surprised Ranger of the puck. A short time later, covering Dorsett on a defensive zone faceoff, Muzzin does a lift-and-dump of Dorsett for no apparent reason and puts the Kings down a man. Muzzin spends the rest of the period riding pine, first in the sin bin, then in front of a beakish Darryl Sutter.
Anton Stralman’s Third Period
Though Stralman sees more overall minutes than the second, somehow he, as a player in this game, seems to shrink further. Almost all the discernible plays he makes involve catching a puck that’s been dumped-in, or moving a puck up the transition into the neutral zone, mostly along the boards. A couple of times he starts to jump up, but the plays are so broken he never gets any opportunities. A capable two-way defenseman in Columbus, Stralman’s Game Three is the story of his career.
Jake Muzzin’s Third Period
Everything is slowing down now. With the score 3-0, the Kings have shifted fully into lead protection.
There’s a scary moment in the opening seconds of the third as Kreider slips through Muzzin and Doughty on a nice set play from the Rangers. Muzzin keeps on him, though, ensuring Kreider only has a small window to make his shot. Muzzin and Doughty are pulled off the ice immediately, their 10-second shift destined to be a curious note in the books (but for this piece).
Like Stralman, Muzzin does much more support work, retrieving dumped pucks and flicking the puck along the wall. Again, Muzzin gets too aggressive on a former puck-carrier and leaves behind an open Ranger up front as a shot comes in from the point. Later, he faces down and blocks a wrister from Derek Stepan, and another shot with his hand. Doughty jumps ahead as the Kings move up the ice; Williams moves back to cover for Doughty. Muzzin holds the offensive blue line and throws a wrist shot towards the net – the same kind that went in for him before. This time, though, it’s blocked well before it can reach the net.
A following shift brings a 2-on-2 Muzzin and Doughty’s direction; both defenders collapse on the lead man, which gives Zuccarello a good look with the puck. Nothing comes of it. It ends up being the last big chance for the Rangers while Muzzin is on the ice.
As the Kings continue to protect the lead, Muzzin gets more physical, giving hits, taking hits, sweeping and stick-checking Rangers away from the center of the rink. Doughty has one last big push forward in the game, and Muzzin provides crucial support when Stepan and the Rangers bring it back before Doughty can recover. Muzzin keeps Stepan outside, and Stepan eventually dumps the puck in.
A final agonizing moment as Quick has another weird settling of the puck for Muzzin; the puck pops out of their control but the Rangers can’t control it any better, and the remaining seconds tick from the game. The Rangers pull Lundqvist with nearly 4 ½ minutes left, but the Kings are so committed to their defensive shell the Rangers hardly get a chance, and the Kings don’t score on the empty net.
How much does an Anton Stralman matter to a game? A Jake Muzzin? Any Kings fan will tell you Muzzin meant a lot to this game, and his goal was certainly almost as important as Carter’s. Does it matter that Muzzin made some costly mistakes that didn’t lead to Ranger goals? Not many Rangers fans will tell you that Stralman had a strong game, but in the minutes he played, he did. Does it matter that any of these things happened in a Kings win, Rangers loss? I suppose it depends on how you define “mattering;” maybe mattering for you is focused on the one game, and its outcome – for others, it’s how this contributes to an overall assessment of Stralman the defenseman, Muzzin the defenseman. There are even others who might look to what this says about the Kings, or the Rangers, and their talent, systems, coaches.
Whatever the case, I wanted to present these particular players because a) we still don’t grasp defenseman contributions particularly well, and b) narratives of games still don’t ask the big questions of player worth, and what matters, particularly well. Captured in the lens of Stralman and Muzzin we see a different game, different scenarios to command, create, or react to. Muzzin scored a goal, but if pressed I’d have to say Stralman probably played the better game. Just as bounces and fragility can paint drastically different pictures, looking at steady, consistent play can give us an idea of what we can rely on, more often than not.
After all, it’s that kind of play that made the Kings who they are today. And now they need one win to win it all.