Los Angeles Kings: Stepping Up

LOS ANGELES — Riding on the wave of a four-game winning streak, the Los Angeles Kings found themselves in uncharted waters after their 4-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on October 27 at Staples Center.

That win put in the Kings into a tie for first place in the Pacific Division with the Dallas Stars.

That bit of news would likely cause one to have to read that again to make sure they weren’t hallucinating. Either that, or it would cause one to laugh hysterically at the obvious joke.

We can assure those of you who fear hallucinations that you are not hallucinating (at least, not regarding the Kings). And for those of you who are laughing, the joke is on you.

Indeed, the Kings were atop the Pacific Division for a couple of days until the San Jose Sharks beat the Stars on October 29 and took over first place by one point.

To be sure, the Kings have not been in that position in recent history, and last season, being in a playoff spot, let alone first place, was a pipe dream.

But this season, and yes, we know it is very, very early, is starting to look promising in terms of the Kings qualifying for the playoffs, as they are playing the best hockey they have played in years.

So how have the Kings done it? Let’s take a closer look…

O’Sullivan Stepping Up

Last season, every team in the National Hockey League knew that if you shut down the Kings’ top line, led by center Anze Kopitar, you shut down the entire team.

This season, the top line of Kopitar centering wingers Michael Cammalleri and Dustin Brown is putting its share of points on the board. They are often dominating, and there has been no sign that they can be neutralized so far.

The big reason is that the Kings are getting significant offensive contributions from their second and third lines.

Without question, the Kings’ second line, featuring Patrick O’Sullivan centering Alexander Frolov and Ladislav Nagy, has taken a lot of pressure off the shoulders of the first line as teams can no longer key on them.

O’Sullivan’s emergence as a legitimate top six forward has been a huge plus for the Kings. After contributing mostly on the defensive side of the puck earlier in the season, the second-year center has found himself put into more and more offensive situations and mostly because of his vastly improved play without the puck, he has become a multi-dimensional player who must now be accounted for by other teams no matter where he is on the ice.

That fact was no more apparent than it was against Edmonton on October 27, when he scored two goals, helping lead the Kings to their fourth straight win.

O’Sullivan, who has contributed two goals and an assist during the current four-game winning streak, got the Kings on the board at 18:10 of the first period after he chipped the puck off the boards, past Oilers and former Kings defenseman Denis Grebeshkov at left point in the Kings’ zone, giving the Kings a two-on-one break.

“We had a two-on-one and Nagy went to the net,” O’Sullivan explained. “The defense went to him. I just tried to shoot as hard as I could and it got through.”

O’Sullivan’s slap shot from just inside the right face-off dot beat Edmonton goaltender Dwayne Roloson under his left arm.

And then, late in the game, O’Sullivan had the Staples Center crowd (along with some members of the media in the press box) oohing and ahhing after he scored a breathtaking goal.

The Oilers defense got caught playing too aggressively at the Kings’ blue line and then turned the puck over on left wing. That gave the Kings a three-on-two rush, with winger Kyle Calder moving up ice on right wing. He threw the puck in front, trying to hit O’Sullivan with the pass. The puck wound up on net and Roloson made the pad save. The rebound deflected to the lower left circle where O’Sullivan quickly chased it down and without looking, quickly backhanded the puck into the net with Roloson out of position after the initial save.

Without a doubt, it was a highlight-reel goal.

“That’s basically luck,” said O’Sullivan, who recorded the first two-goal game of his National Hockey League career. “I missed the first opportunity and was just trying to get it back toward the net and luckily it went in. I’ve never done that before ever, not even in practice.”

The Patrick O’Sullivan of today is a now a very different player than the one who played for the Kings last season, and he credits his time with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) last season, along with some serious off-season conditioning work.

“It’s definitely confidence and I know what to expect, that I am capable of playing in the NHL and that’s big,” said O’Sullivan. “To get the experience last year was good for me. I also worked hard this past summer. I got into better shape than I was before and I’m starting to feel that.”

“I’m not the biggest guy, but I got stronger and definitely a lot faster,” added O’Sullivan. “The skating improvement has really helped me.”

Many NHL players have stated over the years that they suddenly reach a point where the game slows down for them and that is when they know they can compete at the NHL level. O’Sullivan has not said anything about the game slowing down for him, but perhaps he has reached that point.

“I’ve got confidence, I know I can play in this league,” he explained. “That’s half the battle, knowing that you’re able to do it. For a young player, that’s a big step.”

“He’s still growing up, he’s gaining experience,” said Cammalleri. “There’s a big difference from when you’re a rookie. You’re just getting used to the NHL, the best league in the world. Now he knows what it’s like and he’s just getting stronger.”

Many have compared O’Sullivan’s recent development with the way Cammalleri came into his own after former head coach Andy Murray benched him for a couple of games early in the 2005-06 season because he was not playing a strong game when he did not have the puck—he was not doing the dirty work along the boards and in the corners that any NHL winger has to do.

But after being benched, Cammalleri was a different player. He learned his lesson fast and well, and many are comparing O’Sullivan to Cammalleri, saying that he could develop in the same fashion.

“I’m not the biggest guy and obviously, he’s not either,” said O’Sullivan, who is 5-11 and weighs 190 pounds. “He’s determined, he’s hard on the puck, he’s gritty. It doesn’t matter how big you are. It’s about competing and anyone can do that. I learned that from watching guys like him.”

Don’t Forget Nagy And Frolov

After getting off to a lethargic start to the season with just three assists in his first six games, and being a healthy scratch for two games because of it, Nagy has suddenly caught fire as well, scoring two goals and adding three assists since returning to the lineup on October 19 when the Kings handed the Vancouver Canucks a 4-2 defeat in Vancouver.

Against the Oilers, Nagy made a great play that exemplified the turn around in his game.

Just past the midway point of the second period, Nagy knocked Edmonton defenseman Tom Gilbert off the puck along the left wing boards, took the puck to the slot and got a lot on a backhand to beat Roloson at 12:21 of the second period.

“That was a huge goal for us tonight,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “It was an individual effort. I thought Nagy had a couple of opportunities to make plays like that earlier in the game and he chose to pass. But on that one, he was selfish for the right reasons. He took it to the net.”

“That one did wonders for us,” added Crawford. “We got a huge boost when he scored that goal, and it was such a strong, individual play. Hopefully, we can get more of those from Ladislav. That’s what he is known to do. He’s known to be a guy who makes strong plays, whether he’s coming out of the corner with the puck and makes a great pass, or he makes a great shot.”

“Our team has a lot of speed,” said O’Sullivan. “So if we’re able to get in to forecheck and cause some disturbance with our puck movement, we’ve got some offensive guys who can capitalize on those chances. A perfect example was Nagy’s goal.”

After a slow start due to a groin injury, Frolov has also caught fire, scoring three goals and adding an assist in the four-game winning streak.

“That was probably Frolov’s best game of the year,” Crawford said after the win against the Oilers. “He looks like he’s getting his legs. He missed those two weeks with the injury in the last two weeks of training camp and that set him back a little bit. He looks like the Frolov we saw last year where he gets those chances and he outskates people. When he controls the puck, he’s a handful to get it away from. I thought on the power play tonight, he was especially dangerous.”

“Frolov is one of the better players in the league,” said Kings goalie Jason LaBarbera. “When he wants to play he’s awesome. He’s probably the strongest guy on our team. You might not be able to tell by looking at him, but he’s so strong on his feet and so strong on his stick that he’s really hard to knock off the puck.”

“He had a groin problem earlier in the year, but he’s really picked it up a lot lately. It makes it a lot easier when a guy like that is playing at his best.”

Being back at one hundred percent health-wise has certainly helped.

“I feel much better now,” Frolov explained. “I had some problems with my groin and I missed all of training camp. It makes a difference—I feel much better right now.”

“I feel much more comfortable with my line mates,” Frolov added. “We generated a lot of scoring chances and kept the puck in the offensive zone. It’s good for us. Our team is playing much better right now. There is a lot of structure and we’re playing well as a team.”

To be sure, the second line of O’Sullivan, Frolov and Nagy has played very well over the last four games, combining for seven goals and seven assists for 14 points over their four-game winning streak.

“They are really good players,” said Cammalleri. “Nagy has been in the league and is a good puck-handler and passer. O’Sullivan is a young, talented guy who is strong on the puck. He has a good shot and is a good passer as well.”

“Once they got their chemistry going, they’ve been dangerous every single time they’re on the ice,” added Cammalleri. “That helps us a lot—it puts less pressure on us.”

Willsie Chipping In

Despite being one of the best players in training camp, veteran winger Brian Willsie started the season as a healthy scratch and then played in one game before sitting out until October 16 when the Kings handed the Minnesota Wild their first loss of the season.

Since then, Willsie has been a fixture on the Kings’ third line, contributing solid play in all three zones and has even chipped in with a goal and an assist.

Starting the season on the bench was not exactly what Willsie had in mind.

“I was a little frustrated with my year last year,” said Willsie. “I worked hard all summer. I wanted to come in here with a little more confidence. I had that in the pre-season, and then I was out of the lineup at the start, but I’m feeling confident again now.”

And he should feel confident because he was not a healthy scratch because of poor play.

“[Willsie being a healthy scratch] was just opportunity because he had a great pre-season,” Crawford explained. “We just chose to go with Nagy at the start, and some of the younger players. Brian had to wait his turn, but he has been a very good citizen.”

“It’s the same situation that [Kevin] Dallman and [Scott] Thornton are in,” Crawford added. “They’re both quality people. Sometimes you just have to wait your turn. We can’t play more than twenty and right now, these guys are getting an opportunity and they’re taking advantage of it. But it’s a long season and we’re going to need everybody.”

“The main thing is that we’re getting contributions from eighteen skaters and a goalie. It hasn’t been one line that’s carried us, it’s been a total team performance.”

Speaking Of Goalies…

Perhaps the top reason the Kings have turned things around has been the stellar play of LaBarbera in goal.

Like the rest of the team, LaBarbera got off to a slow start, but he has been on fire since a relief appearance in Calgary on October 18.

Since then, LaBarbera is 4-0 with a 1.21 goals-against average, and has allowed just four goals on 121 shots during that stretch, good for a .967 save percentage. He was named as the NHL’s First Star for the week ending October 28.

For the season, LaBarbera is 4-2-0 with a 2.06 GAA and a .925 save percentage.

“Barbs is playing unbelievable right now for us,” said O’Sullivan. “That’s who he is. He really is a good goalie. I played with him last year and know what he’s capable of doing.”

“I feel really relaxed out there right now, and for me that’s the biggest thing,” said LaBarbera. “If I’m pressing and nervous and my head’s spinning, I get in trouble. But I’m calm, and I’m not worrying about things. And if I just play my position and play big and let the puck hit me, then I’m usually all right.”

“Right now, I’m just calm, I’m relaxed, I’m not worrying about things and the puck is hitting me,” added LaBarbera.

LaBarbera was especially calm late in the third period against the Dallas Stars on October 25 at Staples Center.

In that game, Kings defenseman Jack Johnson and Rob Blake took consecutive minor penalties late in the third period with the Kings holding onto a 2-1 lead. That gave the Stars two straight power plays, but they could not beat LaBarbera.

“You need good goaltending on your penalty-kill,” said Crawford. “Your goalie is going to have to make some saves and Jason made a couple, the one on the point shot that got through. I don’t know if it was tipped or not, but he had to find that one and he did.”

“He looks more and more comfortable, and everyone says he’s a guy who has thrived on work and he’s getting lots of work right now,” said Crawford. “We’ll continue to give him lots of opportunities.”

LaBarbera’s next opportunity came against the Oilers and this time, he was the biggest reason the Kings earned the victory, as the Kings were not at the top of their game.

“We got a great goaltending performance tonight from Jason,” said Crawford. “He deserves as much credit as anyone else on the team. We got some strong performances from other people, but he was at a different level from the rest of our team, and we definitely needed that in the third period.”

“The key to our victory tonight, no doubt, was Jason LaBarbera,” added Crawford. “He was very cool, very calm, very collected. It’s nice to see, it’s something our team has been waiting for a long time. He’s very popular with our guys because of his work ethic. He’s building chemistry with our group.”

An About-Face?

During their five-game losing streak, the Kings said that all the new players in the lineup and developing chemistry was not a factor in their play.

“I’m not sure it’s familiarity with line combinations or anything like that,” said Crawford. “We’re not making mistakes because of line combinations. Tonight [against Boston on October 12], it was a lot of clears and missed clears—not clearing pucks in vulnerable areas. We need to do a better job of that.”

“It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing with,” added Crawford. “If you’re not right on and you’re not having good habits, being forceful and assertive defensively, you’re going to get what happened tonight.”

But now that the Kings have won four straight games, the Kings are singing a different tune.

“The players are getting more comfortable with each other and they’re getting more comfortable with how they need to play,” Crawford said after the win against Edmonton. “I thought our forecheck was so much better in the second and third periods tonight, and that’s a sign of getting comfortable with where to be, where a guy is going to be and when where the puck should go on the forecheck, and then they’re creating some loose pucks with great hits and good puck control.”

“We knew we had the players here,” said LaBarbera. “It was just a matter of coming together as a team and trusting each other. At the beginning of the year, we didn’t trust each other and I think we learned from that. “We worked hard in practice. The coaches did a good job of preparing us and, for whatever reason, it wasn’t clicking,” LaBarbera explained. “We didn’t really know what we were doing as a group. Once we got that win against Minnesota in the shootout, you could kind of see in our faces a little more confidence and it just carried on from there.”

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