RECAP: Behind another strong effort, the Los Angeles Kings moved one game above the .500 mark with a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center on Saturday afternoon; features post-game audio interviews.
LOS ANGELES — By this time last season, the Los Angeles Kings were, for all intents and purposes, already eliminated from playoff contention. But this season, believe it or not, they are still within reach of a playoff spot and they moved above the .500 mark after handing the slumping Minnesota Wild a 3-1 loss in front of a far more sparse-than-announced crowd of 14,857 fans during a matinee affair at Staples Center on Saturday.
With the win, the Kings are now 13-12-4 on the season, enjoying the rarefied air that exists above the .500 mark for the third time this season.
The Kings were one game above the .500 mark twice in November. Prior to that, the last time was September 9, 2007, opening night of the 2007-08 season.
Kings centers Anze Kopitar and Michal Handzus scored power play goals, while winger Alexander Frolov scored an empty-net goal in the closing seconds to give the Kings their final margin of victory.
Defenseman Brent Burns scored the lone Minnesota goal on a late third period power play.
After a rough opening shift where the Wild had the Kings bottled up in their own zone for an extended period, the Kings came right back and turned the tables on the Wild as they became the aggressors, putting the Wild back on their heels.
With Wild defenseman Marek Zidlicky in the box for interference at 14:31, the Kings got the puck to the net. A scramble for the loose puck ensued, with Kings wingers Dustin Brown and Patrick O’Sullivan winning the loose puck battle in front. The puck trickled into the crease where Kopitar was standing. He had a gaping net to whack the puck into with Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom down.
The goal was Kopitar’s tenth of the season and his fifth in the last five games.
The Kings continued to control the pace of the game in the second period, outshooting the Wild, 17-8 in the period and 31-17 through two periods.
Zidlicky was in the penalty box again just 0:59 into the third period, this time for tripping, and the Kings capitalized.
This time, Kings defenseman Matt Greene fired a shot from right point. Frolov and Kings rookie right wing Wayne Simmonds were in front and Simmonds got his stick blade on the shot, deflecting it off the left goal post. The puck ended up in the crease behind Backstrom. Handzus was Johnny On The Spot at right crease and he wristed the puck into the net for his seventh goal of the season.
The Wild poured 17 shots on Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg in the third period, but they were unable to put one past him until Burns took advantage of a penalty-killing breakdown by the Kings.
With Kings defenseman Peter Harrold off for roughing at 16:57, the Kings’ penalty-killers were all focused on the puck carrier and were not paying attention when Burns moved down the slot from the blue line. He was all alone when he took a centering pass and one-timed a wrist shot from the low slot, beating Ersberg high, just inside the right goal post.
In the closing seconds, the Wild pulled Backstrom for the extra attacker, but a lazy line change by the Wild allowed Frolov to pick up a loose puck within a few feet of the Minnesota bench. Behind the defense, Frolov skated the puck into the empty net for his thirteenth goal of the season.
For the Wild, it was their fourth straight loss and was one in which they did not put in a solid effort.
“I think really we only had a couple of chances to score,” said Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire. “That’s not enough. That’s not a good effort. The guys practiced well and they had good energy and then the game comes the next day and there’s nothing.”
“We didn’t play good enough against a team who really worked hard today,” added Lemaire. “They moved the puck well, they were strong with the puck and they made great plays. You just have to play better than this.”
Then Lemaire’s emotions boiled over.
“They’re responsible for what they’re doing off the ice,” Lemaire fumed. “I’m not a baby sitter! They’re responsible. They’re professionals. They should know.”
“How many times did we turn the puck over in the first period? I don’t recall when we’ve played like that,” Lemaire elaborated. “We didn’t have a lot of energy and try to beat people with the puck, try to beat four guys in neutral zone? Come on. It’s all getting our mind on the game.”
His players knew they did not play well.
“I wouldn’t say we weren’t ready, but we definitely need to be better to start the game, especially on the road,” said Wild left wing Stephane Veilleux. “We’ve been down two goals the last couple of games and we feel under pressure and we play desperate hockey when we shouldn’t.”
“We need to find a way to start the games on the right foot,” added Veilleux. “We can’t play desperate hockey in this league. Every individual has to give a little more and that’s how we’re going to get out of that slump as a team.”
On the other side of the red line, the Kings have won two straight and the two wins may have been their best two performances of the season. One reason for their success has been their power play, which is clicking at a 40.9% rating over their last nine games with nine power play goals scored in their last 22 opportunities with the man advantage.
And in their last two games, the Kings have scored five goals in eleven opportunities with the man advantage, a 45.5% rating.
The biggest reason for their recent success on the power play is a simple one: the Kings are getting the puck to the net, especially from the blue line.
“I just think those guys are shooting the puck,” said Kings defenseman Matt Greene. “You see Kyle Quincey. Every time he gets it, he’s putting shots on net that are creating rebounds or getting tipped.”
“If we’ve got a really good shot coming from the point with Quincey and Harrold, it’s going to spread things out,” added Greene. “It’s going to make the penalty-kill respect the down low play a little bit less. That’s how they can really open it up with guys like Kopitar and O’Sullivan and Brown down there.”
Kings head coach Terry Murray has constantly preached getting pucks to the net all season long, and his players seem to be buying in now in a big way.
“There’s a great push on the power play, special teams, every day,” he explained. “We do a lot of work to prepare the team for special teams, the power play. There’s no secret to power play goals. You’ve got to manage the puck, you’ve got to have your skilled players out there. But you do still need to get the puck to the net on a consistent basis from the blue line.”
“If you look at both goals here today, Kopitar ends up getting a puck that might’ve been the third or fourth shot,” he elaborated. “It was a loose puck and he picks it up. Same with Handzus. It was a shot from the blue line, it hits the post and there it is.”
Another factor in the Kings two-game winning streak is that Anze Kopitar seems to have found the few things in his game that had been eluding him so far this season, and even he admitted getting off to a slow start.
“It’s a slow start for sure for me,” Kopitar said after his team’s win over the St. Louis Blues on December 11. “Maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself. I’m a pretty intense guy, I want to always do my best. Sometimes, you put too much pressure on yourself. You get carried away, you try to do too much and it’s not going your way.”
Whatever the reason, in his last two games, Kopitar has looked like the often dominant player he was the previous two seasons.
“Kopitar, the last two games, has played his best games for me this year,” said Murray. “Not only because he scored a couple of goals, but he’s really intense, he’s on the puck, he’s got great awareness around him now on the defensive side of things.”
“I think he’s starting to really learn the value of checking and I believe our team has taken that appreciation of checking to another level,” added Murray. “The offense is coming, we’re getting more shots on net, we’re attacking with possession more often and the bottom line is we’ve won more games because of it.”
Rookie winger Wayne Simmonds also played his best game of the season against Minnesota.
“Simmonds is showing a lot of composure,” said Murray. “No fear. He’s playing as strong and heavy as anybody on our team. He’s playing on an important line that we look to to shut down the opposing team’s top line and he’s very comfortable at it.”
“Simmonds has played—I had him down on the fourth line for a little while and he has really picked it up, responded, elevated his game to another level,” added Murray. “That’s the growth side of things and that’s the way it should be. We’re well into the season and young guys need to be major contributors. They’re not considered, in my books, to be first-year players. They have to do more and we expect more.”
Surprisingly, the Wild, known for the defensive prowess, looked quite ordinary against the Kings, who racked up 43 shots on goal, generally unheard of against the Wild.
“I don’t think we expected to come out against this team and get 40 shots,” Murray explained. “They’re the team that has given up the fewest goals in the NHL. But it was important to come out and play our game. We knew coming off the St. Louis game that we had a little bit of momentum and we wanted to build on it.”
“The important thing against Minnesota is getting the puck through the middle of the ice,” Murray emphasized. “You must manage it, you’ve got to make smart decisions, strong decisions with the puck and get it down below the tops of the circles. If you can do that and you start putting pucks to the net then teams become teams, defensemen just become defensemen in the sense that you start turning around and looking for loose pucks and rebounds. You just become a player. But if you’re mismanaging the puck while their back is to their net it ends up in a transition going the other way. So that was a big part of the job, a big focus for our team.”
After a forgettable performance against the Edmonton Oilers on December 5 when he allowed three softer-than-soft goals in the first period before being yanked in favor of Jason LaBarbera, who came on relief to start the second period, Ersberg has put in two strong efforts.
“Both goalies played tremendous here today,” said Murray. “The plays they had at the net were quick plays, hard plays, stuff coming from around the back of the net and then they end up getting the one with the player driving, looking for a re-direct and it goes in.”
“Ersberg was great,” Murray stressed. “He was focused, he killed a lot of plays. A lot of pucks came to him and it was just a face-off in our end. That’s the kind of confident player that you like to see and that’s the player I was hearing about before training camp, that he could really absorb a lot of pucks and settle things down with that kind of effort.”
Against the Wild, Ersberg allowed one goal on 34 shots for a .971 save percentage. In the last two games, he has allowed three goals on 62 shots for a 1.50 goals-against average (GAA) and a .952 save percentage.
Indeed, Ersberg has come back very strong after his less-than-shaky performance against Edmonton.
“I think you can ask any goalie, there’s going to be nights like that,” said Ersberg. “It’s a long season and you’re going to get pulled sometimes. There are going to be nights when the puck just goes in. But I think the important thing is to try to bounce back from that and play a good game.”
“You know that happens sometimes so you can’t get too emotional about it,” added Ersberg. “Obviously, I was really pissed off. But the next day is a new day, so you just go out and practice again. You can’t think too much about it.”
Overall Ersberg is 8-5-2 with a 2.39 GAA and a .902 save percentage.
After going out on the road and playing a royal stinker at Colorado on December 9, an embarrassing, crushing 6-1 defeat, the Kings knew they had to come back strong.
“You’ve got to respond after a game like that where you really get it handed to you,” Greene explained. It’s good to see us do that against St. Louis two nights ago, but then to carry it over, which is something we haven’t been able to do a lot this year. So it’s good to see guys come out today prepared and ready to play a tough game.”
But what’s it going to take to keep that going beyond two games?
“Probably two live chickens, maybe some kind of powder and just a lot of belief,” Greene said with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
“Just playing the system,” Greene explained. “The last two games have definitely been games where everybody’s buying into the finishing checks and playing your system—not getting antsy and going off on your own page. I think that’s the secret to this team. We play our best hockey when we play together.”
“Maybe there’s less flash at times. But everybody’s pushing in the right direction.”
That should be music to the ears for Kings fans.
NOTES: Kopitar is on fire, racking up five goals with two assists for seven points in his last five games; O’Sullivan has four goals with seven assists for eleven points in the last thirteen games; Brown has three goals and four assists for seven points in the last five games; Ersberg has allowed two goals or less in ten of his last fifteen starts and has allowed more than three goals just once this season; This season, the Kings have allowed 81 goals through 29 games, an average of 2.79 goals per game. Last year, they allowed 95 goals in 29 games, an average of 3.28 goals per game. That’s an improvement of .486 goals per game.
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