LOS ANGELES — As in most professional sports, in the National Hockey League, one or two mistakes are often the difference between winning and losing, and the young Los Angeles Kings learned that lesson the hard way on Monday night in a 4-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in front of an announced crowd of 13,891 fans at Staples Center.
Ryan Smyth led the way for the Avs with two goals, including the game-winner scored at 16:32 of the second period, spoiling the night for Kings rookie forward Oscar Moller and rookie defenseman Drew Doughty, who both scored their first NHL goals.
Moller opened the scoring on the power play at 6:19 of the first period, only to see Smyth tie the game on a wrist shot from the left circle at 11:28. Smyth’s goal came as a result of the first and only strong shift by the Avs in the period.
Left wing Patrick O’Sullivan gave the Kings a 2-1 lead with a goal at 3:02 of the second period, but then the wheels fell off the Kings’ cart.
Colorado right winger Milan Hejduk scored at the 4:01 mark, followed quickly by right wing David Jones at the 5:16 mark, giving the Avs a 3-2 lead.
Smyth then made Doughty look silly with a nifty move to get past the 18-year-old defenseman. Smyth had a clear path to the net and roofed a backhand over Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera’s left shoulder.
“A young kid of his caliber is going to go through a lot of ups and downs in his career, but he’s a phenomenal hockey player,” Smyth said about Doughty. “That play was just a matter of a little bit of inexperience on his part, but he’ll get it.”
Doughty came right back in the third period with a not-quite-as-nifty goal of his own, firing a wrist shot from the left circle while using Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles as a screen, beating Avs goaltender Peter Budaj just inside the right goal post.
The Kings dominated the third period, outshooting the Avs, 8-2, but they fell short. In the end, their second period lapse, which included two key turnovers by center Michal Handzus and defenseman Tom Preissing which led to Colorado goals, was their downfall.
“We made some mistakes in the second period,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “We had some problems managing the puck again and the experience of their team took advantage of it.”
“That second period…we had a couple of breakdowns and they ended up going in the net,” said O’Sullivan. “When you play a team that’s got skilled forwards like Colorado does, that’s something you can’t do.”
“There was probably about ten minutes of it that we did struggle and they had the puck in our end,” added O’Sullivan. “A couple of turnovers and they get two goals.”
Turnovers contributed directly to Hejduk’s and Jones’ goals, but that was not the problem on Smyth’s second goal, when he burned Doughty, who took responsibility for losing his man, but he added that Smyth got a nice bounce.
“Actually, it hit my foot first and went back to him, so it was kind of a lucky bounce on his part,” Doughty explained. “But I still have to be taking the man in that position, so it’s partly my fault, but definitely a lucky bounce for him.”
Murray was impressed with how the rookie blue liner bounced right back.
“After a tough goal against there in the second period on what ends up being the winning goal, [Doughty] had no effects of it whatsoever,” said Murray. “He came out and played a tremendous third period and it was just a great effort on that goal to show poise, handle the puck and come in off that left wing side with a great shot.”
Doughty was not the only one who played well in the third period, as the Kings totally dominated the Avs, despite scoring just once.
“It was a tremendous third period with our effort and focus on doing the right stuff,” added Murray. “We just to figure that out and do it for sixty minutes.”
“I think, with our third period effort, we’re real happy about that,” said O’Sullivan. “We competed—that’s something we can build on. We work really hard as a team. If we just eliminate those couple of mistakes we’re going to be good. We’re going in the right direction. That third period was pretty good, I thought.”
“Overall, it was a pretty good effort,” added O’Sullivan. “We came out hard in that third period. That’s the difference between this year and last year. Everyone’s willing to work and even if we do have a tough period, we’re going to come out the next time and improve upon that and work through any mistakes.”
“In that third period, we were all over them,” said Doughty. “We totally dominated the game. If we continue to play like that, as we did in the third period, we’re going to be getting a lot more wins.”
Indeed, the Kings played well for about fifty minutes in this one, and it was that second-period lapse that was their undoing.
“We can’t take a period off,” said Doughty. “In the first period, we were good. But the second, we definitely took it off and that’s when they took it to us. In the third period, we took it back to them. We were all over them and I think that game should’ve been ours, definitely.”
“We’re a young team and that stuff is going to happen,” said O’Sullivan. “We have to realize that, we have to try to avoid it, but at the end of the day, we’re working hard and trying to correct our mistakes. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Another problem for the Kings was a shaky performance by goaltender Jason LaBarbera, who allowed all four Colorado goals on just fourteen shots.
Although he had no chance on Smyth’s first goal, he looked rather shaky on the three Colorado goals in the second period. But his coach was not going to place the blame on his shoulders, even though backup netminder Erik Ersberg came on in relief at the start of the third period.
“It was about the team,” Murray said about the goaltending change. “I’m not putting anybody on an island here. This is about the team. We had the puck in those situations on three goals and put the goaltender in a pretty tough situation.”
“It was to send a message to the hockey club that we had to be better,” Murray stressed. “We have to manage the puck, make sure we do the right stuff and continue to work on our game.”
On the bright side for the Kings, in addition to their strong first period and even stronger third period, they remained perfect on the penalty-kill, having killed all 23 shorthanded situations they have faced this season, including four Colorado power plays.
“That’s starting to be something that everyone’s talking about,” said O’Sullivan. “It’s definitely improved from last year. Our mentality is that we’re going to try to outwork the five guys that are out there against us and if we continue to do that, we’re going to have success.”
“We’ve got guys who are good at killing penalties,” added O’Sullivan. “When you combine that with the effort that we’re putting out, it’s going to be successful.”
Much of the credit for that goes to Murray and assistant coach Mark Hardy, who have emphasized penalty-killing since the start of training camp.
“There’s a new system, a new philosophy,” Murray explained. “We put a lot of attention on the penalty-kill. We knew last year was an off-year and that to have success in this game you’ve got to have pretty good special teams. We put a lot of focus on it, talked about it right from the beginning of training camp. Maybe some new players are getting an opportunity and putting in big efforts.”
“Against a good power play team, a team that has some really great players who can move it around with a guy like [Joe] Sakic, there was a big commitment by all of our players on the penalty-kill,” Murray elaborated.
Another bright spot, as mentioned earlier, was Moller and Doughty scoring their first NHL goals.
“It was so good to finally get that goal just to give me that boost of confidence,” said Doughty. “After I got that goal, I was more in the play, rushing the puck a little more. Obviously, it would’ve been a lot better to win that game, but it was good to get that first one.”
“It was only a matter of time before these young guys were going to get their first goal and it’s great to see it happen so early in the season,” said Murray. “Moller’s goal was a veteran play, throwing the puck to the net. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s the right play when you make that kind of a play, but it’s usually an experienced guy who’s doing it.”
Murray also knows he has a special young player in Doughty.
“We would really like [Doughty] to keep it pretty simple out there, moving the puck on the breakouts, doing the right things that we ask all of our defensemen to do,” said Murray. “But we know he’s a special player. He has a special high end—he’ll get there someday on a consistent basis.”
“He has the ability to jump up in the play and we ask our defensemen to do that. But he’s got the ability to attack with speed, to make a play or to do what he did on that goal. That’s just a tremendous individual effort.”
NOTES: Moller also contributed an assist in the game for his first multi-point game in the NHL; Doughty played a season-high 25:07 in the game; Handzus also tallied an assist, giving him two goals and three assists for five points in five games, including two goals and two assists for four points in the last three games; defenseman Kyle Quincey led the Kings in ice time with 25:47.
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