LOS ANGELES — After losing five straight games following their season opening win in London, England, the Los Angeles Kings have now won three of their last four games and are playing much better hockey.
During their five-game losing streak, the Kings were, in a word, horrendous. They were stumbling and bumbling their way through each game, making one glaring, fundamental mistake after another, with the puck winding up in the back of their net each time.
At least for now, the Kings appear to have righted the ship. The glaring mistakes have disappeared as the players have bought into the system and are trusting each other.
“It looks like guys are starting to have more confidence in each other,” said Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera after shutting out the Nashville Predators on October 23 at Staples Center. “Earlier in the year, we seemed to be pressing a lot and we weren’t trusting each other.”
The added confidence and trust has the Kings playing significantly better in their own zone.
“I was really appreciative of how well they played in the third period for Jason and for the psyche of our team defensively,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford after the 6-0 blowout victory over the Predators.
“[Left wing Raitis] Ivanans made a great play when they had a spectacular chance at the side of the net, I think it was [Predators right wing Alexander] Radulov,” added Crawford. “He collapsed down and got his stick in the right spot to nullify a goal. Those things seem to happen when you’ve got good habits, and our guys are adhering to the defensive side of the puck.
LaBarbera Taking The Lead
After getting off to a slow start in the pre-season and in his first two games in the regular season, LaBarbera has come on strong in his last three games and appears to be establishing himself as the Kings’ number one netminder.
In his first two games of the season, September 30 against Anaheim in London, and then on October 10 against Dallas, LaBarbera was not at his best, although the vast majority of the goals he allowed were because he had been hung out to dry by his teammates who were still in major blunder mode during that stretch.
In those two games, LaBarbera allowed nine goals on 52 shots, resulting in a very poor .827 save percentage.
But in his last three games, LaBarbera has played much better and benefitted from the Kings playing mostly solid defense in front of him. The result: a 2-0 record with just two goals allowed on 56 shots, good for a stellar .964 save percentage.
That is an eye-opening turnaround.
“I just feel more comfortable in the net,” said LaBarbera. “I was probably pressing a lot earlier in the year. I was trying too hard. I knew the opportunity was there, I just tried too much. I’ve just taken it back a bit and for me, it’s how I feel in practice. It’s been a lot easier having two goalies—I get more reps.”
Two seasons ago, LaBarbera made his Kings debut and after playing lights out in goal in his first handful of games, he was mostly shaky the rest of the season. But during this three-game stretch, he looks like a much more confident netminder.
“[It is due to having] a little bit more experience, understanding the situations better, understanding the league better,” LaBarbera explained. “Everything from the schedule to just being in LA, everything was new to me then. It’s still kinda new but it’s just being more comfortable.”
“Experience is the biggest thing, but being able to work with [Kings goaltending coach] Bill Ranford and [Kings assistant goaltending coach] Kim Dillabaugh has helped me a lot. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing.”
LaBarbera’s solid play appears to have inspired his teammates.
“Jason is gaining some confidence and playing like he can and like a lot of us in here know that he can, and that he’s gaining the respect and confidence of his team,” said Kings winger Michael Cammalleri after the win over Nashville. “That’s what a goalie needs to do. You see the swagger he had tonight, maybe he didn’t have that many shots early, but on that one chance Radulov got beside the net, instead of sitting back, letting him make a play, LaBarbera gets out and takes the puck off the guy’s stick before he can even make a shot. That’s aggressive goaltending and that’s going to instill confidence.”
“[LaBarbera has] played three very good games for us in a row,” said Crawford. “We desperately needed our guys to have confidence in their goaltender. He played a very strong game and he moved the puck really well behind the net.”
Cammalleri, who played with LaBarbera when they both played for the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, said that LaBarbera is capable of much more than he has showed.
“I said to him after the game, ‘great game, but that’s average for you,’” said Cammalleri. “Because I know him well enough, I know how good he is. That’s an average night for him.”
The Kings can only hope.
When Was The Last Time…
Can you remember the last time the Kings had a player leading the league in goal scoring or in points at any time during a season?
Chances are, even if you can, you had to really think about it. But at least in the early going this season, Cammalleri leads the National Hockey League with ten goals in ten games played as of this writing.
Calgary Flames center Daymond Langkow is second with eight goals.
Cammalleri has been the one constant this season, starting off on fire from the get-go, and his hot scoring touch burned the Predators for two goals on Tuesday night.
At 6:09 of the first period, Cammalleri was Johnny On The Spot when defenseman Rob Blake fired the puck towards the net from right point. The shot was partially blocked in front, but Cammalleri was there to pick up the loose puck in front of the net and slide it around Nashville goaltender Chris Mason.
“Hockey is a consummate team sport,” Cammalleri explained. “When you’re scoring a lot, it’s always the direct result of the guys you’re playing with. On that play, the puck went back to the point. [Kings winger Dustin] Brown pinched—he made a great read. The puck went back to Blake. He actually made eye contact with me, seeing me go to the net. He’s got his head up, he pump-fakes and he just tries to get it through to me. That’s just a great play by both of those guys and I ended up putting the puck in.”
“The point men did a real good job of getting their shots through,” said Crawford. “If you watch the play, Rob delays a little bit, he takes a step, he opens the lane and he gets the shot through. Then, Mike really collapses onto the puck and funnels in there to the net.”
“Good goal scorers do that,” added Crawford. “You have to get to the front of the net to be a scorer and at his size, you have to appreciate his determination to get into those areas where you know you’re going to get hit, you know you’re going to get banged. He’s very hungry to score for sure.”
Cammalleri was right where he needed to be once again at 18:40 of the third period, re-directing a perfect pass from defenseman Jaroslav Modry, who was at left point. Cammalleri was in the low slot and had an easy re-direction power play goal into the wide open right side of the net.
“I take responsibility for producing offensively for the team,” said Cammalleri. “I’ve been able to do that, so that feels good. It feels all that much better when we win. We’re playing well, we’ve started to do some good things and tonight was kind of a culmination of that.
“He’s just so hungry to score,” Crawford said of Cammalleri. “At the end, Modry made a great play for the goal, and Modry doesn’t get any power play time, so for him, you can see his excitement about getting out there. When you make passes to world-class scorers, something good is going to happen.”
“Mike doesn’t pass up many great opportunities,” Crawford elaborated. “He was dangerous all night. He goes to the scoring areas and he goes there with a purpose. He has such great habits. He’s in double figures now. He wants to score, and I don’t foresee him changing his game at all. He’s going to continue to be a guy who pursues the puck and really has great goal-scoring habits to go along with his instincts.”
Before we forget, the last time a Kings player led the league in either of the major scoring categories was in the 1993-94 season when Wayne Gretzky led the league in overall scoring with 38 goals and 92 assists for 130 points in 81 games.
Found: A Second Line
It appears that the Kings have found some effective line combinations, at least for the foreseeable future. Most notably, Crawford may have found his second line with Patrick O’Sullivan centering Alexander Frolov on left wing and Ladislav Nagy on right wing.
They were the Kings’ best line against the Predators and they combined for one goal and three assists for four points (Frolov also had a power play goal, which was not credited to his regular line).
“Nagy, Frolov and O’Sullivan was a very effective line for us tonight,” said Crawford. “Nagy—you saw how he hung onto the puck, you saw how he challenged their defense. He was a handful every time he had the puck tonight, both he and Frolov, and that’s what they have to do. Their strength is with the puck. Their strength is to create something off of puck possession and they did that very effectively tonight.”
Nagy, who was in Crawford’s dog house—he was a healthy scratch for two games last week due to poor play—has apparently received the message that Crawford was sending him.
“He’s played extremely well,” said Crawford. “Tonight I thought was his best game. It was nice to see Ladislav get the payoff and score a goal tonight, too. That’s got to give him a world of confidence as well.”
Johnson To Play Against Dallas
Kings rookie defenseman Jack Johnson left Tuesday’s game against Nashville after taking a hit late in the second period due to a charley horse.
“He got a bit of a charley horse when he was hit in the corner towards the end of the second period,” said Crawford. “We just held him out in the third. It’s nice to be able to do that when you’ve got that type of lead. I think he should be OK, but we’ll see tomorrow.”
Johnson did not practice on Wednesday. Instead, he underwent treatment which appears to have worked, as he is expected to play on October 25 when the Kings host the Dallas Stars.
“I’m playing today,” Johnson told Rich Hammond on the Inside the Kings blog. “I feel good today, good to go. It feels good enough that I feel I can play.”
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