Losing Drew Doughty to a one-game suspension essentially leaves the Kings down 2-0 before they play the second game of their Stanley Cup playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights. The Kings have erased a deeper playoff deficit — they lost the first three games of their 2014 first-round series against San Jose before rallying to win the series — but after a narrowly losing a fast and physical game in which Doughty played a prominent role their prospects of pulling even before the series shifts to Los Angeles have taken a big blow.
The NHL's Department of Player Safety brought down its ever-unpredictable hammer on Doughty for what it called an avoidable hit to the head of Vegas forward William Carrier in the third period of the Golden Knights' 1-0 victory on Wednesday. In an explanatory video the league emphasized two points: It's irrelevant that the first point of contact was Carrier's arm because the rule is concerned with the principal point of contact and, it said, "The brunt of the impact of the hit is delivered to Carrier's head." The decision also said a hit could have been delivered cleanly if Doughty had hit Carrier's core. It concluded contact to the head was avoidable, resulting in a one-game suspension that took into account Doughty's long and solid record.
The verdict wasn't a surprise, given the Department of Player Safety had tweeted Thursday morning Doughty would have a hearing for "an illegal check to the head," and it doesn't usually include the term "illegal" in announcing hearings. The decision will hurt the Kings considerably but it probably was the right call.
It's long past time for the NHL to severely punish head shots, no matter who dishes them out, and its inconsistency in such situations has been maddening and potentially dangerous. If suspending Doughty was a signal from new dean of discipline George Parros the NHL will be more vigilant and more consistent in its judgments, some good might come out of this, though it's not apparent for the Kings now.
From their standpoint, the only good news is the ban wasn't longer, because the NHL considers playoff games to be twice as weighty as regular-season contests. Doughty's importance to the Kings is immeasurable. He's the emotional center of the team, not just a Norris trophy-worthy player who led the NHL by playing an average of 26 minutes and 50 seconds during the regular season and played 27:52 on Wednesday in Game 1.
His emotions sometimes boil over, but it's easier to a moderate that kind of fire than to create one from damp sticks. He had been hit hard by Carrier several times early in a close, adrenaline-fueled game. He made a split-second decision in a game played at a fast and furious pace and that decision had a bad outcome for Carrier, whose status is day to day, and for Doughty, who will miss a playoff game for the first time in his Kings career.
As they did when Jeff Carter was injured early in the season and as they've been doing while defenseman Jake Muzzin has been recovering from an upper-body injury, the Kings will again look to the next man up to fill the void. Still, Doughty is not easily replaced.
"He's definitely a big part of the hockey club," left wing Tanner Pearson said. "It's going to be big contributes from everyone and not just defense. Everyone has to help out."
Their task will be tough but not impossible. They played a rugged game, though players and coach John Stevens were skeptical about the official tally of 68 hits by the Kings and 59 for the Golden Knights. "I don't know if there'd be anybody playing [Friday] if that number is accurate," Stevens said. They believe they did many things right, led by goaltender Jonathan Quick's 27-save performance, and they can improve their chances by getting the puck to the net more often and getting people there to establish position for rebounds and deflections and generally obscure the sightlines of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
"We lost 1-0 to one of the best home teams in the league with the advantage they have here. Especially the first period," Dustin Brown said. "I thought we did a really good job of stifling their energy and their offensive opportunities. We need to get more time in their zone and make it harder on their goalies."
Almost lost in the excitement of the Golden Knights' playoff debut as a franchise was the Kings' return to the playoffs after having missed out last season for the second time in three seasons. They've won one game in one series since their 2014 Cup championship. "It felt really good to be back in, for the players and for us back in that environment with the intensity, both teams playing hard and the building the way it was," Stevens said. "It was kind of exciting for us to be back in that position, so we're looking forward to the challenge in front of us."
That challenge became bigger when Doughty was suspended. How they handle it will say a lot about whether this will be another quick playoff visit or the start of a legitimate Cup chase.