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LA Kings Getting Solid Production From Second Line In Early Going

LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — As they have struggled on the power play, scoring just one goal in 16 times shorthanded through the first four games of their 2010-11 National Hockey League season, and with star center Anze Kopitar off to a slow start with just three assists in the four games, the Los Angeles Kings have had to find offense from a somewhat unexpected source.

Going into the new season, question marks were everywhere regarding the Kings’ second line, featuring Jarret Stoll centering Ryan Smyth on left wing and Justin Williams on right wing. But with Williams arguably being their best forward to this point in the young season, the line has combined for six goals and they have consistently generated quality scoring chances using strong forechecking and going hard to the front of the net—two things the team’s first line has not done quite as well.

“[The] Stoll line was, maybe, our better line out there tonight again, head coach Terry Murray said following his team’s 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on October 15. “They were really pursuing the puck. They had good pressure, a lot of composure [and they were] making plays. They made good decisions through the middle of the ice and ended up scoring.”

The Stoll line was also the key in a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on October 12, scoring two goals, one of them showcasing the chemistry building between the line mates.

On the play, Smyth threw a pass to Stoll on right wing in the neutral zone. He entered the Atlanta zone with speed and from the right circle, fired a wrist shot that was deflected near the point of contact, beating Thrashers goaltender Chris Mason.

“You know what made that play? [The puck] came around the wall and Justin Williams was talking to me the whole way,” Smyth noted. “‘You’ve got time, you’ve got time.’”

“As a player, when your back’s turned to the play and you hear that, that’s good communication and it goes a long way,” Smyth added.

Having played with both Stoll and Williams in the past has helped Smyth in terms of chemistry.

“I played with Stoll in Edmonton—not a whole lot—and a little bit last year,” Smyth explained. “But I had the chance to play with Willie for the most part of last year, and we work well off each other. Hopefully, this is the start of something.”

Against the Canucks on October 15, Williams, as he has been doing since the pre-season began, drove hard to the front of the opposition’s net where he was able to capitalized on an opportunity.

“Williams’ goal was a nice attack [with] good attitude,” said Murray. “[Rookie defenseman] Jake Muzzin jumped up on the play. They [went to the] net, looking for those loose pucks. It was a great read.”

“He works really hard,” Stoll said of Williams. “He’s on the puck all the time, he’s good at creating turnovers, good on the forecheck and just hunting down the puck. He can play down low, he can shoot the puck—he can really fire that thing.”

“Once he gets the puck, he moves his feet, and he likes to make plays,” Stoll added. “That’s one area of the game that I want to get better at, and he can help me with that, for sure.”

The second line will need to produce all season long if the Kings expect, not only to get into the playoffs, but also to make it out of the first round.

“Getting the goal scoring going is one of our concerns,” said Stoll. “We came through in the third period [against Atlanta] and won the game. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’re going to have to do more of that this year, and find ways to win those close, hard-fought games, especially when you’re not at the top of your game, but we found ways to do it. It felt good.”

While Smyth and Williams are goal scorers—Williams has hit the thirty-goal mark twice in his NHL career—Stoll has not been a consistent, proven goal scorer. Nevertheless, he is being relied upon to improve in that area this season, and with two goals in the four games, so far, so good.

“I just want to keep shooting the puck, getting those good opportunities, getting into those good spaces on the ice where my line mates can find me and where I can get those shots and opportunities,” said Stoll.

“I know I’m going to get the puck for sure, whether it’s in the offensive zone or through the neutral zone, they’re going to find me,” added Stoll. “Those guys make plays. They move the puck, they find the puck and they’re all over the puck. That’s huge, because I can just get open and try to find those good scoring areas.”

During their first two games, a 2-1 shootout victory at Vancouver on October 9, and a 3-1 loss at Calgary on October 10, the Kings were mostly a perimeter team, failing to get bodies or pucks to the front of the net much at all.

But against Atlanta and Vancouver, the Kings did a much better job in that area.

“People are committing to getting to the front of the net,” right wing and team captain Dustin Brown said following his team’s win over the Thrashers. “If you want to score goals, you have to go the net. That’s something each individual player has to take responsibility for, especially if they want to score goals.”

“Take a look at Smyttie’s goal,” Brown added. “[Williams] actually makes the goal happen because he’s in front of the net when the puck gets there. It squirts out and [Smyth] gets it. We need to continue and build on that.”

Despite the exploits of the Stoll line, the Kings’ first line has not been shutout. Indeed, Brown has scored a couple of goals by practicing what he preached when the Kings defeated the Canucks on October 15, scoring two goals while parked in front of the Vancouver net.

The first goal came at the end of a two-on-two rush, after a highlight-reel move by Kopitar, blowing by Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa and then, from below the right circle, backhanding the puck across the goal mouth to Brown, who was waiting at the left goal post for an easy, slam dunk goal into a gaping net.

“It was pure instinct,” said Kopitar. “It was one of those things where I’ve played with Brownie for a bit and Brownie has played with me for a bit. I knew Brownie was going to go to the post there and I guess he knew I was going to slide it over. I probably make that play nine out of ten times.”

“It was one of those plays—a two-on-two,” Brown explained. “I’m coming in on my left side which gives me a few more options because the puck is in the middle of the ice.”

“I knew, once I dropped it [back to Kopitar], with Kopi—he was coming with a lot of speed, so I knew that if I drove to the seam, he would probably be able to make a play happen on the other defenseman because, coming down, when a guy has full speed, you slow [the defenseman] up a little bit and you can beat him laterally,” Brown elaborated. “He then fed me back door. It was a good play.”

That the goal came off a highlight-reel play made the goal noteworthy. But what made it even more significant was not only that it came as a result of the Kings getting to the front of the net, but also that it was scored almost immediately following a goal by Canucks star forward Daniel Sedin that cut the Kings’ lead to 2-1.

“It was nice to respond the right way with that one,” said Murray. “I think we’ve shown pretty good composure. The response with that quick goal is certainly what you want to see, and it was a great play by Kopitar and Brown.”

It was not so long ago that the Kings would have collapsed under the weight of the adversity they faced in that kind of situation.

“Especially when it gets to be a 2-1 game and you can respond, not giving a lot up after that, guys know they’re doing the right stuff and you do build confidence off of it,” Murray stressed.

The Kings were in the midst of a line change, when Brown scored his second goal with two-thirds of the line centered by Michal Handzus still on the ice.

“I got off the bench and I came in,” said Brown. “I think Handzus and [left wing Alexei] Ponikarovsky were both pretty tired, but they had an opportunity and the puck squirted out in front to me and I just had a chance to put it on net and it kind of trickled up and over [Canucks goaltender Roberto] Luongo.”

Indeed, on both goals, getting pucks and bodies to the front of the net was the key.

“As a team, we’ve just got to keep going with our system—that middle-lane drive, going hard to the net, getting those screens or just try to cause havoc when you’re there,” said Stoll. “Sometimes we can be a little too fancy. We have to make sure we reel that in, keeping it simple, keeping it hard and get pucks to the net.”

Establishing a strong forecheck has also been a plus.

“I thought we stuck to the system very well,” Smyth said following the win over the Thrashers. “We kept getting pucks in deep, and that’s a huge [thing] for our team. When we get in on the forecheck, we’re really good at that. We limit their time and space with the puck and their time in our zone.”

“When you’re cycling the puck and when you’re taking the puck to the net a little bit more, you’re causing more traffic. Good things are going to happen.”

Indeed.


Jonathan Moncrief, who covers the Los Angeles Kings for The Examiner, contributed to this story.


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