LA Kings: Month vs. Pacific Division Proves Difficult

LOS ANGELES — In the month of November, the Los Angeles Kings failed to take advantage of facing Pacific Division rivals in eleven straight games, taking a nose dive right into the cellar of the National Hockey League’s Western Conference.

Kings head coach Marc Crawford referred to November as a “divisional month.” And even though no team qualifies for the playoffs or is eliminated from the post-season party in the second month of the season, the Kings have certainly made their quest for a playoff berth much more difficult.

The problem for the Kings has been two-fold. First, they have not been able to put together a string of games where they put in a strong, solid effort. Second, without winger Alexander Frolov, who is on injured reserve due to a groin strain, the Kings are not getting the offensive production from their second line—they have reverted back to being a one-line team that is easier for opponents to shut down.

“It definitely sucks right now,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar after his team lost at Anaheim on November 25. “It sucks because we’re always a goal behind and we needed that win too. We need to get on a streak and catch up to the rest of the Pacific Division.”

The Kings cannot easily replace the offensive production that Frolov provides, not to mention the scoring chances he creates for his line mates. However, they have total control over their effort, but the Kings have mostly come up far short in that department.

“They played harder in the third and they got the win again,” said Kings defenseman Rob Blake. “I didn’t think we battled hard enough in the third to pull out the victory.”

Consistency has certainly been a problem for Kings all season. And beyond.

“It’s nice to get those leads,” Kings forward Michael Cammalleri explained, as the Kings blew a lead in the loss at Anaheim. “We definitely want to keep doing that. Once you do that, you have to re-focus and go out and do the things that got you that lead and keep doing them.”

“Getting out to a lead is great but then it seems like we’re just trying to hang on,” added Cammalleri. “That’s not a successful way to play. We want to be a team that goes for the jugular. That’s why they’re a championship team. That’s the way we want to play.”

“The ‘hang-on’ theory isn’t one you want to play by. It’s not a successful way to play. When you get a lead you want to go for the jugular—the killer instinct, where you just keep going at a team and you bury them. You don’t let them back in the game. To sit back and hang on, hoping you win is not going to be a successful way to play with leads.”

Along with a lack of effort, execution has also been eluding them.

“Maybe we played a little too defensively,” Kopitar lamented after the loss at Anaheim. “It seems like they kept coming all the time and we just chipped pucks out instead of attacking like we did in the first period. We have to get more consistent in getting pucks to the net and making offensive plays.”

“We made some soft plays up the middle,” said winger Dustin Brown after the Phoenix Coyotes beat the Kings, 1-0, on November 17 at Staples Center. “We can’t be making those soft plays.”

The Kings seem to know what they need to do, but just aren’t able to get it done consistently.

“If we can play how we can play—we have a good team in here and we can compete against the top teams in the league,” said winger Dustin Brown. “It’s just a matter of being consistent, not only from game-to-game, from the first minute of the game to the last minute of the game.”

“We need to put together a full sixty minutes and just be confident for sixty minutes,” said Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera. “We need to do the things we do throughout the whole game. Sometimes we let things get away from us too much and it costs us. We need to figure out a way to stick to our game plan for sixty minutes.”

The most recent example of their inconsistency was playing a solid game for sixty minutes against the Edmonton Oilers on December 3, even though the Kings lost the game in a shootout, 4-3, only to follow that with a not-so-solid effort against the Coyotes on December 5, a 4-1 loss at Arena in Glendale, Arizona.

Against Edmonton, the Kings put in their best effort in a month.

“We played a real solid game tonight,” said Crawford. “I haven’t looked at the tape yet, but I know we’re going to see lots of good plays, good chemistry. On the bench, we had lots of enthusiasm tonight. That wasn’t present in the last game. It’s a nice step to take. Almost to a man tonight guys were trying to do whatever it took to get something for the team, so that is definitely a step in the right direction. Now we have to keep building on it.”

But that has been the problem for the Kings. Their one-step-forward-several-steps-backwards pattern has sunk them into the depths of the Western Conference dungeon.

“We can’t be a good game-bad game-good-game-bad-game team,” Crawford emphasized. “We have to be a [team that strings good games together]. Then your sub-par performances maybe get you a point like we did tonight. That’s usually the way it goes. When you concentrate on process the way we did tonight, usually things work out.”

“You just try and work hard and keep the same attitude that the guys had,” Crawford added. “The attitude was definitely present on the bench from moment one. I thought the attitude was terrific when we got scored on in the second period where we’ve been having the lull or where we’ve been having the downtrodden feelings. They weren’t there tonight. There was a lot more presence of mind, a lot more positive energy on the bench. Determination would be a better way of putting it. They played as if they weren’t going to be denied and at the end, they weren’t denied.”

Crawford and his players appear to be on the same page about what they need to do from here.

“It’s not that we don’t play hard,” said Kings center Derek Armstrong. “It’s just that we’re a young team. At this stage, it’s all mental for us. It’s more in our heads. We definitely have to grow together, learn together and keep pushing ahead.”

“We have some things to build on,” said Kings defenseman Brad Stuart. The key for us is that we’ve had points in the season where we’ve had things to build on, but we haven’t taken it to that next step. In order for us to become the team we have to be, we have to take a game like [their loss to Edmonton] where we do good things but lose and get better from it. So far, we haven’t been able to do that, so it’ll be important for us to move forward even though we did lose.”

“I think we were more committed as a team to do what we need to do to be successful, “ added Stuart. “That means guys taking shorter shifts and giving it all they’ve got, getting back hard and letting the next guy do his job. What it comes down to is hard work and smart work, and we were a lot better in that area. We had some good hits, we were physical, but we were smarter as well. A couple of mistakes cost us, but we’ve got to build on those hard-working habits and get better.”

Even though the Kings were taking the positives from that loss to the Oilers, the frustration caused by yet another loss was clearly evident.

“It’s frustrating to say we were better here, we were better there, and still to have lost the game,” Stuart lamented. “Like I said, we have to build off the positives. It’s something we haven’t really done yet—putting together a string of good, solid games, regardless of whether you lose a close one here and there.”

“You lose a game like this, it’s tough. But it can be a stepping stone because we can see that the little things make a difference and I think we realize that. Now we’ve just got to build on it. We can be better. No doubt about it we can be better in a lot of areas. But we can’t let those areas slip where we were good tonight.”

Despite their current position in the standings, along with the fact that their won-loss record is about the same as it was at this time last season, the Kings believe they are still in it, unlike last season.

“You can’t say that [we’re out of the playoff picture].” said Armstrong. “This is a month where we have to stay close because anything happens in January and February. The problem is that we’re a young team. You never know what’s going to happen with a team like this. We’ve got a great first line, our goaltenders are playing well. We have to build as a team and continue to move forward.”

“Anaheim and San Jose were running away with it last year,” added Armstrong. “They’ve struggled a little early, so that gives us a little confidence. We’re still within grasp. All the teams are still within grasp of a playoff spot.”

Struggling To Score

As reported earlier, without Frolov, the Kings are once again a one-line team, making it far easier for opposing teams to shut them down. As a result, players like Cammalleri, Kopitar and others have struggled at times in the offensive zone.

“Cammalleri is still capable of a lot more,” Crawford after the loss to the Oilers. “We know that, everyone who’s watching knows that. Defensively, if you look at how we played back there, we were fairly solid. We had a couple of shifts where we scrambled a bit. Eventually, we’re going to need the guys who are getting chances now—Armstrong, Nagy, those types of guys—to score.”

To be sure, the players Crawford mentioned were struggling badly. But in a blowout win over the Buffalo Sabres on December 6, several of those players broke out of their doldrums.

Cammalleri scored his second goal in as many games to open the scoring in the first period. He was joined in the goal parade that followed by unlikely suspects such as Armstrong, Michal Handzus, Jaroslav Modry and Tom Preissing, who was a healthy scratch in the Kings’ two previous games.

“A game like that works wonders for everybody,” said Crawford. “You could see that a weight was lifted off a number of people on our team.”

Indeed, after he scored his goal, Armstrong lifted his arms in celebration, not just because he scored, but also because he finally broke out of his season-long slump.

“It’s nice,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve gone that long in my career without scoring a goal.”

Not contributing offensively as much as he wanted was certainly weighing on Armstrong.

“The frustration tends to creep in,” Armstrong explained. “It’s tough, especially with [Kopitar’s line carrying us all year. We’re looking for secondary scoring and some of us could help out like we did tonight. [Kopitar’s line was] dynamite again tonight. But the points don’t matter to me. It’s all about the wins.”

“I’ve said that all along,” Armstrong stressed. “It’s more about winning to me than anything else. I think that’s where the frustration is for me—we weren’t winning and I wasn’t helping with the scoring.”

Even Kopitar went through a recent dry spell before contributing four assists against Buffalo, but that is because after his showcase rookie season, everyone knows about him and he is drawing a ton of attention from the opposition’s top defensive center.

“Especially against Anaheim, it feels like [Samuel] Pahlsson [one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards] is right on me all the time,” Kopitar explained. “But I knew that was coming this year. I have to battle through it.”

“That’s the way it is,” Kopitar elaborated. “We do the same thing on their guys and I’m sure they have a tough time playing against us. You have to win those one-on-one battles and be stronger in holding onto the puck and making plays.”

Goalie Prospect Gets A Chance

With LaBarbera still out with a rib cartilage injury, rookie goaltender Jonathan Quick made his Kings and National Hockey League debut against the Sabres after being called up from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League on December 2.

Quick, 21, played in three games with the Monarchs this season and has a 1-2-0 record, a 2.67 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .909 save percentage. He also played in thirteen games with the Reading Royals of the ECHL this season, earning a 7-5-1 record , a 2.46 GAA, a .907 save percentage and one shutout.

The 6-0, 180-pound native of Milford, Connecticut, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (72nd overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, allowed two goals on 17 shots against the Sabres, and looked solid for a wet-behind-the-ears goaltending prospect.

“I thought I played well, good enough to get the win,” Quick beamed while sitting in front of his locker with the game puck behind him. “Of course, it was a lot easier with the support my teammates gave me. They played spectacular. The power play was clicking. It was great.”

“I felt great,” Quick added. “To get your first win in the NHL and to do it in an arena like this with great fan support is a great feeling. The fans were into it, the players were going, it was just a great experience.”

Like most rookie goalies, Quick had a few butterflies before the game.

“You dream about playing in the NHL your whole life,” he said. “Finally, the opportunity was here, so I was a little nervous at first. But the team did well in front of me and they scored a lot of goals, so it make it a little easier for me.”

Quick’s best save came in the first period, when the Sabres skated in on him, three-on-one. But he got across his crease quickly after anticipating the pass to the right side. He ended up doing the splits, but remained upright and made the glove save.

“I was just focused on the puck, just trying to stop the puck,” he said.

“He played well,” said Armstrong. “He made that big glove save in the first period and controlled his rebounds. It was awesome to see him play really well against a team like Buffalo who’s great offensively. He looked great out there and didn’t look like a first-game goalie. The guys are all happy for him.”

Quick also made a positive impression on his coach.

“He made a couple of very nice saves, said Crawford. “It’s great when you get a lead like that after one period. It allows you to settle in. He didn’t get a lot of work. But he did have some and I thought he was good.”

“That was a good game for him and he should enjoy it,” added Crawford. “He’s a very good prospect and he got a chance to show a little bit of what he has tonight.”

Quick, who was all smiles in the dressing room after the game, said that he found out that he was getting the start against Buffalo too late for his family to catch a flight to Los Angeles from the East Coast.

“They were watching the game,” Quick explained. “My father went out and bought the NHL Center Ice package the other day when I got called up, so they were all watching. A bunch of my friends went over to watch.”

Quick could see further action for the Kings next week if LaBarbera is still unavailable.

“He’s excited about his game tonight and who knows, he may get a chance again next week,” said Crawford. “We play so many games in a short time that we plan to play the backup in some of them.”

Defenseman Scoring Down

Those who follow the NHL have probably noticed that it is not just the Kings who are seeing a lack of scoring from their blue liners.

Indeed, this is a phenomenon that is occurring throughout the league. The reason: teams are paying a lot more attention to taking away point shots.

“I think what a lot of teams do now is block shots,” said Stuart. “Padding is so good now that guys aren’t afraid to block shots.”

“What you’re seeing now are teams packing it in to the net and it’s tough to get shots through,” added Stuart. “There’s a couple of ways to look at it. Just keep shooting and something’s got to get through, or just be creative. Look for tips. It’s something where it’ll take a little while for teams to adjust to.”

This new strategy has given rise to defensemen throughout the league trying to bank pucks off the end boards, hoping that it will rebound in front of the net and create a scoring chance.

“That’s where you have to get creative, whether it’s shooting it wide off the boards, looking for rebounds to come out front, or just getting it by the first guy, looking for sticks,” Stuart explained. “So it is a little different. But when guys are blocking shots, other things are going to open up. It’s something you have to adjust to.”

“For myself, I just try to get it past that first guy. Shoot it hard. If a guy wants to stick his foot out in front of it or block it with his hand, I want to make sure he feels it. For a defenseman, the key is to get it by that first guy coming at you. Try to hit the net if you can, but if not, look for those rebounds off the boards or sticks in front. That’s how you have to adjust. The biggest thing is to have your head up.”

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Throughout his NHL career, Brown has been known as a hard-hitting, rugged, right winger who can hit a player so hard that they become board advertising. But that was pretty much it. He would chip in with an occasional goal, but teams did not have to worry about him being a major offensive threat.

Although Brown improved his numbers in each of the last two seasons in the NHL, few people considered him to be a legitimate top six forward.

In 2005-06, his first full season in the league, Brown scored 14 goals and added 14 assists for 28 points in 79 games, and in 2006-07, he scored 17 goals with 29 assists for 46 points in 81 games.

Brown certainly made some significant improvement from his 2005-06 numbers, but no one could have predicted that Brown would explode onto the scene this season and emerge as an offensive force that opponents must reckon with.

To be sure, averaging 15.5 goals and 21.5 assists over his first two seasons did not give anyone reason to believe that Brown would suddenly become a player who is now looking like he could become one of the best if not the best, power forward in the NHL, sooner rather than later.

But during the off-season, Brown lost a few pounds and worked on his skating, and it has paid off. He is noticeable faster this season, but even more important, he now believes in himself.

“A lot of it is confidence and a lot of it is experience, knowing when to turn it up a notch,” said Brown. Hitting is a weird thing. Sometimes, you can create big hits, but a lot of times, it’s just a matter of letting things come to you.”

“This year, I’ve been focusing on picking up my offensive game and really focusing when I get those chances,” added Brown. “Last year, when I got those chances, maybe I didn’t have the confidence to score. That’s the difference—the experience and the confidence this year.”

Brown also gave credit to his line mates.

“When you’re playing with Anze and Cammy, that’s a positive for anyone,” said Brown. “They make plays, and I’ve benefitted from the great things they do that maybe you don’t see from the stands but as a player, you notice the little things top players do, and they are top players.”

Crawford said that Brown is progressing towards becoming a seasoned NHL veteran.

“He’s at the point in his career where he is maybe a little more comfortable with the puck,” Crawford explained. “When you’re young and you’re learning the league, when you get the puck on your stick, maybe you force plays or hurry plays a bit more. Dustin has a bit more poise now. As a power forward, it’s about controlling the puck and making a quick decision, and I see a lot more control in his play.”

“He’s always physical,” Crawford added. “He was physical as a young player in this league. He caught people by surprise, but he doesn’t catch anyone by surprise now. “

Brown’s experience has certainly showed in the fact that he is making much better decisions on the ice.

“Physicality is still there [in his game].” Brown stressed. “But when I have to focus on offense, I’m not taking myself out of the play as much this year, which has helped me get my chances. I’m not worrying about making the huge hit and maybe taking myself out of position by three or four feet. In today’s game, three or four feet is a big difference. Letting the hits come to me, I can still get my hits, but I’m in better position defensively and offensively.”

Clearly, Brown no longer has any doubts about his game.

“There’s definitely a different feeling for myself,” he said. “You come out onto the ice—I remember my first couple of years, questioning or doubting myself, whether I belong, or whether I can score. Now, I just go out there and expect to create offense for this team. I’ve been fortunate enough to get the opportunity and capitalize on my chances.”

“It’s definitely a different mindset for me now. It’s not whether I belong. It’s making a statement.”

Brown has certainly made a very big statement this season with his league-leading 123 hits, along with his thirteen goals and eleven assists for 24 points in 27 games. On pace for 38 goals, 32 assists and 70 points for the season, Brown has been a huge positive for the Kings in what has been a rather dismal season to date.

Bring On The East!

If the Kings had their way, even though the added travel would be a challenge, they would love to play against Eastern Conference teams more often.

“So exciting,” Cammalleri after the game against the Sabres. “Even the buzz in the room before the game—we were so excited to play a team we haven’t seen before.”

“Playing against the same teams over and over again gets a little repetitive,” Cammalleri added. “It was exciting to play against some new guys, see some new faces and try to prove yourselves against some guys you don’t know as well.”

With the news that the league will move to a new schedule format next season where teams will see more teams from the other conference, the Kings, along with many fans, will get their wish.

“It’s always nice to see different teams come in,” said Modry. “I think it’s going to benefit the NHL. It’ll be harder for us with all the travel, but at the end of the day, it’s great for the fans and that’s the way it should be.”

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