LOS ANGELES — If there was ever anything clearly evident about the 2007-08 Los Angeles Kings, it is that they are hockey’s version of a modern-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Indeed, after beginning the season going 1-4-0 in their first five games, they went on to win four out of their next six games, and the rest of the season has gone much the same way—an up-and-down roller coaster ride. In fact, simply stating that you never know what Kings team you’re going to see on a given night would be quite the understatement.
To illustrate, after that 4-2-0 run, the Kings turned abruptly in the other direction, winning just four games in November, a month that saw them lose five straight games between November 13-21.
Things continued much the same way in December as the Kings won just four games once again, and combined with an eight-game losing streak, any hopes they may have had of qualifying for the playoffs were dashed. Perhaps even worse, they also landed themselves deep into the National Hockey League’s basement—last place in the overall league standings.
Finally, on December 29, some light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel. The Kings won three straight games—their first winning streak since they won four straight back in October. But then they turned right around and lost three straight.
But wait…it gets worse. If you thought the NHL’s basement was as low as the Kings could go, guess again.
“It was a stinker,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “There’s no two ways about it. You can’t mask this one. It was awful. We all have to take responsibility for it, myself included.”
Before the Kings knew what hit them, they found themselves down 3-0, giving up three early goals in a span of just 1:15, and everything just went downhill from there.
“It was a total collapse by our group tonight,” Crawford lamented. “If you’re looking for an explanation, I don’t really have an explanation. I do know that when you are as fragile as our team has shown itself to be of late, if you get scored on early like that, it’s probably the worst thing that can happen.”
To a man, the Kings played without confidence after being bombed in that 1:15 span early in the game.
“The biggest problem we had was that we didn’t want the puck offensively,” Crawford explained. “We threw the puck away, which is out of our character. We hang onto the puck and tax the opposition’s defense. We just threw the puck away and then we complicated that even more by trapping ourselves even more by throwing the puck away. That’s why they got the three chances off the rush to start the game that resulted in goals.”
“The way we play in the offensive zone, on the forecheck, in the neutral zone and especially in the defensive zone, you’re expected to make quick reads, be assertive and keep body position,” Crawford elaborated. “In all three zones, we lost our position, we lost our way in all of those areas. That led to a game in which we were embarrassed.”
Crawford also said that everyone must be held accountable for this disaster of a game, but he pointed mostly to himself in terms of who must be held responsible.
“It starts with me,” he stressed. “You have to look at the coach and say ‘hey, these guys have gotten scored on quite a bit early in the game.’ We addressed that, but we’re still having that happen.”
“I can’t point fingers at them,” he added. “We’ve all got to look at having some ownership and accountability, myself included. We need to look at ways to address our game. From our coaching staff, I can assure you that we’re burning the midnight oil analyzing—maybe even over-analyzing our games.”
To be sure, the Kings were so bad in this game that they redefined the term, “rock-bottom.” That raises the question…now what?
“We all feel terrible, myself included,” said Crawford. “We’re going to commit to work our way through it. It’s not a very pleasant situation for anybody, certainly our fans, our organization, not the least of which are the players. They are embarrassed by their performance tonight. There’s no excuse for it. We all have to take responsibility for it and we all have to be committed to work our tails off to get through it.”
His players shared that sentiment.
“On our part, that cannot happen again,” said center Anze Kopitar. “We have to work through it. There’s a couple of areas where we can improve and we’ll practice on it, but that definitely can’t happen again.”
“This is as bad as it got,” said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin. “We’re going to have to regroup, stick with each other and make sure it’s not going to happen again. It’s pretty embarrassing to do that in front of our fans.”
And unlike just a couple of years ago, the Kings have not fallen apart off the ice.
“It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie to you,” said LaBarbera. “It hasn’t been a whole lot of fun. It’s definitely been stressful. A lot of us aren’t used to losing like we have. But the biggest thing is that we’ve stuck together as a team and we haven’t pointed fingers.”
“We just have to build towards the future. We still have a lot of young guys in here. Losing is tough. It’s tough on everybody. We need to stick to our game plan every night and not waver from it.”
Maybe That Really Was Rock-Bottom
After that huge stinker against Nashville, things could only go up from there, right?
At least for now, that is exactly the case as the Kings have won seven out of their last twelve games (7-5-0), including three straight from January 10-15, and three out of their last five games from January 12-22, their last victory, a 4-3 win at Vancouver on January 19.
But the most important game for the skittish Kings was on January 10 against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, one game after the Nashville Disaster.
On that night, the Kings got off to a fast start for a change and had a 4-0 lead before the also-struggling Leafs found their legs.
“We knew we had to come out with a good start and we did,” said LaBarbera. “We got four goals in the first period and that’s huge. Obviously, we were pretty embarrassed by the loss the other night, but we swept that aside.”
“It’s nice to be on the other end of one of those,” added LaBarbera. “We were flying early and that’s what we want to do. We want to come out hard with a lot of energy and show a lot of passion. We did that early. Obviously, getting a four-goal lead makes it a lot easier on everybody.”
“It feels great,” said Crawford. “You score that many goals in the first period, especially given the way the last game was, it was very refreshing. It allowed our guys to feel comfortable in the game. It was the start we wanted and I’m sure the start they absolutely didn’t want.”
Kings forward Dustin Brown said that the Kings need to make sure they continue to work hard every game and work together.
“It’s a tough thing to do,” Brown explained. “It’s a matter of all twenty guys in here pulling on the same rope. I think sometimes we’ve gotten away from that and have become individuals trying to do too much. We’ve addressed that in here. It’s a matter of just being a team, winning together and losing together. In a tough year like we’ve had, it’s important that we stay together and stand up for one another.”
“In here, we all know that we can play better, so I don’t think any of us are quitting by any means,” Brown elaborated. “There are 32 games left in the season, or whatever it is. For us, we’re a young team. It’s more important for us to come out every night and try our best and execute our system. The bottom line is that we can’t give up on our work ethic. Win or lose, our effort had to be at a high level every night.”
“That has to be the key for our team. We’re young, but we can always work hard and hope for the best. If we do things right, over the course of the season, things will go right for us.”
The players also said that getting bombed by Nashville was an eye-opener for them.
“It was a wake-up call for us,” said Brown. “We were playing pretty good hockey and not getting the results. Going into that game, we kind of lost our belief in our system. That was a re-focusing tool for us over the last couple of days—work hard, play our system. The results might not be there right now, but if you play it right, it’ll come through like tonight. We played a good system game and we got the result we wanted.”
“Our fans have been great this year,” added Brown. “We have a great fan base. Our building seems full every night and we’re not playing the best hockey. They’ve shown their support. Now it’s our responsibility. The last game was something that will never happen again here. Tonight was a statement to the fans that we’re working our hardest.”
LaBarbera Returning To Form
Prior to suffering a rib cartilage strain on December 3 that forced him out of the lineup for eight games, LaBarbera was playing well, often the best player on the ice for the struggling Kings. But after returning to the lineup in mid-December, LaBarbera was slow to regain his pre-injury form.
But during his team’s recent stretch, LaBarbera has been quite solid, with six games where his save percentage was greater than .930.
“I’m just feeling better out there,” LaBarbera said after the Kings beat the Dallas Stars on January 12. “I guess the biggest thing is staying positive. When you get down two goals, I’d be negative and you can’t play that way. The last two games I tried to stay upbeat—stick with it, stay positive, not worry about what the score in the game was and just focus on the rest of the game and help the team win.”
The best example of LaBarbera’s strong play of late came during that game against the Stars, a 4-3 shootout win at Staples Center.
In that game, not only did he stop Stars center Mike Ribeiro in the shootout to secure the victory, but he also committed highway robbery earlier in the game to get the Kings to the shootout.
In the third period, the Kings gave up a two-on-one break and Stars forward Jeff Halpern took the cross-pass with a gaping net to shoot at. But LaBarbera dove to his left to make a highlight-reel glove save.
“That’s probably one of the better saves I’ve seen in my days,” said Kings defenseman Tom Preissing. “If he doesn’t save that, it’s pretty much a back-breaker.”
“I thought our goaltender made the game-saving save on the two-on-one that we did give up,” said Crawford. “That was the one breakdown that we had in the entire game five-on-five. That was a nasty chance, a real high-quality chance. It was nice to see Jason get rewarded with a win off of such a strong save he made.”
Indeed, contrary to what many believe, goaltending, at least when LaBarbera has been between the pipes, has not been the Kings’ biggest problem., and LaBarbera’s numbers tell the whole story.
With a stellar .910 save percentage going into Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, and a rather high 2.96 goals-against average, LaBarbera’s numbers certainly do not seem to fit together.
But when you add in the fact that the Kings are ranked 29th in the thirty-team NHL in goals against (3.32 goals against per game), it all becomes crystal-clear: Jason LaBarbera has not been the problem, not with a save percentage of .910. To be sure, the telling signs are the goals-against average, which is more indicative of team defense, and the goals-against per game numbers, also a measure of team defense.
The bottom line is…the problem is not LaBarbera. Rather it is the usually horrid defensive play in front of LaBarbera that has plagued the Kings all season long.
Purcell Gets A Shot
On January 14, forward prospect Teddy Purcell, who had been lighting up the American Hockey League for the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, was recalled after winger Brian Willsie went down with a back strain and with forward Michael Cammalleri already on the shelf with a rib cartilage injury.
At the time of his recall, Purcell, 23, led the Monarchs in overall scoring (53 points) and in assists (39). He also ranked third in the AHL in overall scoring and led AHL rookies in scoring. The 6-3, 171-pound native of St. John’s, Newfoundland was also tied for second in assists and first among rookies in the AHL.
Purcell was also named as a starter for the Canadian AHL All-Star team and he was the AHL Rookie of the Month in November.
Purcell got a long look from the Kings scouts, coaches and front office staff during the pre-season rookie camp and in training camp before he was assigned to the Monarchs where he thrived.
“Things started going well down there,” Purcell said of his time with the Monarchs. “I was disappointed to get sent down at first, but you go down there and learn a couple of things. It’s nice to be rewarded with a chance up here.”
Purcell has clearly been the Monarchs’ best player so far this season, but being fresh out of the University of Maine, Purcell has surprised some with his eye-opening play.
“That’s been a bit of a surprise for myself as well,” said Purcell. “We’ve had some good success. I’ve been with some good teammates and our power play has been clicking. Everything’s been going well and it’s nice to get that start to my professional career.”
But Purcell also knows that he has some things to work on before he can even hope to make the Kings roster for good.
“I still have some areas to improve on,” he said. “[Some of the things]…they told me to work on—working away from the puck and I’ve been trying to pay a lot of attention to that up here—backchecking, getting in on the forecheck and creating things there, especially when I don’t have the puck.”
Most importantly, the 6-3 Purcell, who started last summer at just 177 pounds, needs to bulk up.
“Purcell has got to get stronger and he will get stronger,” said Crawford. “He’s a very young guy just realizing how strong NHL defensemen are and it’s always been my experience that when a young forward—and he’s got a good frame—realizes he needs to get stronger then they go about making adjustments in the off-season.”
“For the rest of this year, Teddy needs to continue to battle, keep his balance on the ice, keep his feet moving and do things with his lower body strength, which I think is very good,” added Crawford. “But his upper body strength needs to pick up and that will make a huge difference for him in getting away shots in traffic and getting away shots with people draped all over him.”
Purcell arrived at the Kings training camp in September at 198 pounds, thanks to weight training and working with a nutritionist. But during the season, players often lose weight because of all the activity with little time for weight training.
“It’s really hard to put on weight during the season,” Purcell explained. “You’re so active every day, so it’s about maintaining and keeping what you’ve worked hard to put on over the summer.”
“I still have some filling out to do and it’s a hard process for me because of my body type,” Purcell elaborated. “It’s something I’m putting a lot of work into and I’m going to try to keep improving.”
The biggest thing for Purcell to do in order to add muscle is?
And no, we’re not talking about gluttony, but we’re also not talking about cutting down on calories, either.
“I’m trying to eat a lot more,” he said. “It’s my job now. It’s not like last year where I was trying to manage school and hockey. I try to pay attention to how I’m eating—eat at the right times, eat properly and eat a lot. I also get in the gym as much as possible to try and maintain your strength.”
If Purcell can maintain and build on his strength, the Kings could be developing a top-six forward with a lot of upside.
“He’s the type of player who protects the puck well, a little like [Alexander] Frolov and maybe a little bit slicker,” said Crawford. “Frolov has that good strength so he can fend off the opposition’s defenders, so we’re looking for that type of improvement in Ted and I’m sure he’ll get that as he gets older and more mature and definitely stronger.”
For his part, Purcell is doing a lot of watching and learning from his teammates.
“They’re all doing a real good job of helping me out,” said Purcell. “It’s nice to know they’re pulling for you and trying to help you as much as they can.”
Purcell has been paying special attention to what defenseman Rob Blake has to say.
“Everything you say to him, it’s like, ‘is he really talking to me,’” said Purcell of his team captain. “It’s pretty special when he’s talking to you. Everything you can learn from those guys you just have soak it in and I’m like a sponge here. I’m enjoying every second.”
Of course, Purcell knows that once Cammalleri returns to the lineup, he will likely be headed back to Manchester—maybe even sooner than that. But he also understands that he has more work to do before he can make it to the NHL to stay.
“I’m just taking it day-by-day,” he explained. “They have a couple of minor injuries. It’s kind of stressful at times since you don’t know if you’re coming or going. But you can’t worry about things you can’t control. You just go out and work hard every day and play your game.
“I still have a lot of work to do,” he elaborated. “You can’t be down on yourself. You have to go down there with the drive and determination to work on the things they want and hopefully, get back up here as soon as possible.”
But as the old saying goes, there is no time like the present, and for now, Purcell is an NHL player and getting the call was a dream come true.
“It was special,” Purcell said with a smile. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I didn’t expect it. I was thrilled. I thought I was dreaming. My family was excited. I called them right away when I got the news.”
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