Los Angeles Kings: Playoff Contention Slipping Away
January 6, 2008 Leave a comment
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings are, for all intents and purposes, out of playoff contention.
After winning just eight games between November 1 and December 31, the Kings now find themselves deep in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference cellar, fifteen points behind eighth-place Anaheim with forty games left in the regular season.
Last year, it took 96 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, and since the 2001-02 season, a team has had to earn a minimum of 91 points in the standings to qualify for the post-season.
With just thirty points after 42 games, the Kings need 61 points to reach the 91-point plateau. That means they would need to win three out of every four games the rest of the way, and even though they accomplished just that over the last week, realistically speaking, winning three out of every four games is an insurmountable task for the young Kings.
To illustrate, the league-leading Detroit Red Wings have a winning percentage (based on points) of .768 going as of January 5. At .750, the Kings would be performing just below that of the mighty Red Wings and better than the Ottawa Senators, who are the second-ranked team in the league.
Despite that sobering fact, the Kings have not given up, and that has shown in their recent play.
Practice Makes Perfect?
OK, maybe “perfect” and “Los Angeles Kings” should not be used in the same sentence at the present time. But the point is that practice is crucial for any hockey team and during a hellish month of December when the Kings played sixteen games, they were unable to have a full practice session until the end of the month when finally they had a couple of days off from playing games.
Indeed, for the first time since late November, the Kings had time to work on their defensive zone coverage, among other aspects of their game.
“You can’t underestimate being able to practice,” said Kings defenseman Tom Preissing. “With our December, the number of games we played was insane. We had almost no time to work on the stuff we needed to work on, so it was tough. I think this month and here on out, we’ll have more time for that.”
The Kings had played a full two months of horrific hockey, and what it eventually came down to was a lack of execution, combined with the frustration of suffering one loss after another. They were giving up goals in bunches and not generating much in the offensive zone because they were not supporting the puck well and not making decisive plays with and without the puck.
“There’s a lot of common things,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford after his team dropped a 3-2 decision to the San Jose Sharks on December 26 at Staples Center. “We’re giving up too many goals and we’re not getting enough of a contribution from the bottom end of our lineup. If we play a game where we have energy and discipline, we usually play extremely well. All of those things in combination have not happened enough. We need to continue to find ways to have consistency of all of those areas—secondary scoring, energy, discipline, special teams.”
To be sure, the consistency in all the areas Crawford spoke of has eluded the Kings this season. But to steal a portion of a phrase, it’s amazing what a little practice will do, as the Kings have looked like a different team, winning three straight games against Colorado and Chicago on the road, and then handing the very same Chicago Blackhawks an embarrassing 9-2 whipping on New Year’s Day at Staples Center.
Talk about ringing in the New Year loud and clear. In that game, much-maligned winger Ladislav Nagy, who had been mostly invisible this season, exploded for three goals, earning the third hat trick of his NHL career while adding two assists to give him a five-point night, matching a career-high.
“It was a team effort,” said Nagy. “Everybody is playing well, our line, me, [Alexander] Frolov and [Derek] Armstrong. We just started having fun. Tonight we played like a team. We wanted to do the simple things—just shoot the puck right away and look for rebounds. That’s what we’ve got to do every night. Right now, we’re just playing like a team and we’ve been winning games. ”
One of his teammates was just about as effective against the Blackhawks, as Frolov also had a five-point game—a career-high, on two goals and three assists.
“Especially tonight I felt great and my line mates and teammates have played great, Nagy and Armstrong especially,” said Frolov.
“We were just doing a good job of finding holes, finding openings,” said Preissing. “Nagy and Frolov in particular were doing a great job. The key to our power play, at least, is when those two are on—it’s a pretty good power play.”
Speaking of the power play, the Kings tore the Blackhawks apart with the man advantage, scoring five times on seven chances.
“Our power play was really special tonight,” said Crawford. I thought both Nagy and Frolov had the puck pretty much on a string tonight. They were very much in control of the puck and in control of those power plays.”
One of the reasons for Frolov’s improved play is that he is getting back into shape after missing eleven games with a groin injury.
“I feel better and more confident for sure,” Frolov explained. “I still feel a bit sore but I’m just playing through it. I hope it’s going to go away soon.”
Frolov also said that his team’s confidence is growing.
“We believe in ourselves and we are playing with more confidence,” he said. “If we don’t make stupid mistakes and [if we] work hard as a team, good things will come for us.”
Frolov and Nagy, who is back after suffering a hip flexor injury, have come on strong in the last four games and it is clear that they have been difference—makers—something the Kings have not had enough of this season.
“You can probably see it by the lack of scoring—those are two guys we count on to score almost every game,” said Preissing. “To have one or both of them out, it hurts. You can’t really replace scoring. It’s hard.”
Crawford has been very impressed with Nagy’s recent play.
“He’s played very well of late,” said Crawford. “In the game at Chicago, we moved him onto a line with [Anze] Kopitar and [Dustin] Brown because we really thought he had a lot going that night. Tonight, he continued going and we moved him onto a line with Frolov because we saw that Frolov had a lot tonight as well.”
“It just seems that his feet are moving, his puck protection skills, his ability to keep the play alive and really challenge opposition defenders—it’s [all] at a real high right now,” added Crawford. “It’s nice to see. It’s taken a lot of pressure off of Kopitar and his line.”
The Kings are also getting more contributions from their third and fourth lines and the defense has picked up their game. In short, perhaps things are starting to come together.
“We’re getting a little bit more,” said Crawford after the New Years Day win over the Blackhawks. “I thought tonight the player who really picked it up for us was [winger Kyle] Calder. I thought our defense as a unit is playing quite well too. They deserve a lot of kudos. Tom Preissing has played really well for us. The whole group is defending, they’re keeping shots to the outside. If we can keep those shots at the perimeter and try to control rebounds, that goes a long way towards making us a stingy team defensively.”
The Kings were on the verge of matching their season-best fourth straight win on January 3, but the Columbus Blue Jackets eked out a 4-3 victory despite being outplayed by the Kings, who chalked up the loss to poor goaltending by backup netminder Jean-Sebastien Aubin and a few defensive miscues.
“We played well with the exception of our starting goaltender,” said Crawford rather bluntly. “We held them to single digit chances the whole game and that was the story of the game. We had a poor performance there. I liked the way our guys fought back all night.”
“We limited them,” added Crawford. “They got two chances in the third period and unfortunately, they got a tip-in goal. We had lots of battle, lots of fight. Lots of energy. It’s disappointing because we had a little bit of a run going. We continued to play extremely well, but we got behind the eight-ball. Tonight, anytime we mustered some momentum, they scored goals too easily.”
Kings defenseman Brad Stuart said that the skaters deserve some blame as well.
“The effort was there, but we had some breakdowns,” he said. “We just had a bit of a breakdown in the last five minutes, and sometimes, that’s what close games come down to—who makes the last mistake.”
Stuart was referring to a goal scored by Columbus center Michael Peca, who deflected a point shot past Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera, who had come on in relief of Aubin in the first period.
“He made a good play to get his stick on the puck and direct it towards the net,” Stuart explained. “It found its way in. It sounds like a simple play, but when he executed it, it was really effective. It’s a pretty tight league nowadays. Little mistakes end up costing you. They made some and we made some as well. We just happened to come up on the short end of it.”
While the Kings were in the midst of losing a ton of games in November and December, when you walked into the Kings’ dressing room after games, it was almost like walking into a mausoleum at times.
Indeed, the mood was often somber and that might be an understatement. And as the losses mounted, the frustration and disappointment was often so thick in the room, it was almost like you could cut through it with a very large knife.
But it is quite clear that the Kings never gave up and now that they have won three out of their last four games, there are no more long faces or slumped shoulders.
“I think everyone shed about twenty or thirty pounds,” said Preissing, who appeared to lose that much weight off his shoulders when he said that. “All of those losses were weighing on us. To be honest, at the end, we were playing some pretty good hockey. We just weren’t necessarily getting the breaks. I think, to our credit, we’ve stayed with it. The last few games, we’ve been getting those breaks.”
“It’s amazing what happens when you get a little bit of a result,” Crawford explained. “It just seems like the weight some of these guys have been carrying has been lessened and they play with a lot more energy and puck control.”
“I believe that what happens is that when you start to score and you get results—that’s where the confidence comes from,” Crawford elaborated. “We’re getting results, whether it’s scoring chances, or in goals and production, they’re playing with a lot more energy.”
“That confidence is manifesting itself in their ability to hang onto the puck, take that extra step, keep their feet moving for one or two extra steps and find an open player. It’s nice to see that happen.”
Indeed. Gone are the hesitation and indecision when making plays that was all too common over the previous six weeks. Replacing that are the quick decisions without hesitation that come from growing confidence.
“The momentum has been carried over for us since we started getting some results,” said Crawford. “We’re not down now when we get a goal scored against us they way we were two or three weeks ago. We were playing on our heels as opposed to playing on our toes. It’s a lot easier game to play when you’re being assertive and you’re making assertive decisions. It’s easier said than done.”
“It is an emotional game,” added Crawford. “The emotion of getting some confidence and feeling good about yourself is the exact tonic this team needed.”
“We believe in ourselves and we are playing with more confidence,” said Frolov. “We are a good team. We have a lot of talent here and all we need is to not make the mistakes we were making earlier, be more confident, play our team game, support each other and make plays in the offensive zone. If we do that, and [if we] work hard as a team, good things will come for us.”
And even after the loss to the Blue Jackets, the Kings’ spirits were high.
“There were some positives for sure, so we have to build on that,” said Kings left wing Patrick O’Sullivan. “We’ve played well lately. We’ve tried to clean up numerous areas of our game. The defensive zone coverage that we’ve been working on—we’ve been doing a lot better.”
“We’ve had some success the last couple of games,” added O’Sullivan. “We’re not giving up as many goals as we were before.”
“We can’t let it deflate us,” said Preissing. “We’re not at a point where we can go on another losing streak. We have to continue to learn from a game like this and keep some of the momentum we build over the previous three games.”
“We went back to simplifying the game, really breaking it down as much as we could,” added Preissing. “We’ve stuck to that the past five or six games and obviously, we’ve started to see the fruits of our labor.”
Still A Work In Progress
Despite winning three of their last four games, the Kings are certainly nowhere near where they want to be in terms of the level of their play—they know that there is still a lot to work on, which they will continue to do in practice…now that the schedule will allow them the time.
“We have to continue to work on our penalty-killing and interrupt entries [to their zone], do a great job in recovery and pressuring up ice,” said Crawford. “Our goaltending needs to try to stem some of the tide for us. That’s an area that’s got to improve for us.”
“You just keep trying to get a little bit better every day,” added Crawford. “You get a little bit better on your coverage, trying to limit as many chances as you can. You try to work at stick positioning, getting ahold of loose sticks in front of the net. You’re not allowed to battle quite as hard as you were at one time in the National Hockey League in front of the net. It’s more stick coverage and body position coverage.”
Crawford also praised his team’s work ethic over the last four games.
“I don’t think many people can look at our team and say that we’re not getting effort,” he said. “We are getting effort. We’re paying attention to our play in the defensive zone. We’re limiting what we’re giving teams. We’re also seeing signs of guys being a little more creative offensively. We’ve got to improve net drive and net presence, but we’ll continue to strive to get that.”
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