LOS ANGELES — Now 43 games into the 2008-09 season, the Los Angeles Kings are at an all-too-familiar crossroads, one they seem to reach every season.
After a stretch in which they lost four out of their last five games with the final three all losses in which they put in what were easily their worst performances and their poorest efforts of the season, the Kings are on the edge of the very same cliff they seem to find themselves at year after year—right on the brink of dropping out of playoff contention with little to no hope of fighting their way back up the Western Conference standings.
Indeed, unless the Kings can quickly fight their way out of their current slump, their only consolation will be that they at least made it to mid-January before their playoff hopes were dashed once again, unlike last season when they were way, way out of playoff contention before mid-December.
“We’ve been struggling for a week, two weeks,” said left wing Patrick O’Sullivan. “It’s very disappointing. The season can go one way or another right now. That’s what’s happened with this organization in the past. Right around this time everything just falls apart, things start to get away from you and the season is pretty much over.”
“It’s at that point of the season when you keep pushing for the playoffs or fall back,” said center Anze Kopitar. “The last three years we broke apart at this time of the season and we were playing for nothing the last thirty games.”
“I remember in my first year, we were in first [place] in January but we were out of it by March,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “It’s no fun to play.”
The question now is: can the Kings right the ship and make a solid push to get back into playoff contention?
Odds are that the answer is no.
Going into action on January 17, the Kings are seven points out of a playoff spot with 27 of their remaining 39 games on the road.
Indeed, for a young team that is still in the midst of a rebuilding program, using the term “daunting” to describe the challenge ahead would be an understatement, especially with their next three games on the road, not to mention eight of their next nine.
“These next three games are our season, really,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “We’re right there. We need to climb the hill or we’ll fall down the hill.”
“This is a huge test for us, going on the road against three solid teams [Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche],” added Brown. “This is where teams start separating from each other. This will be the test of the year for us. I think it’s a chance we should be excited about as a team. We need to respond.”
“We need to win these next three games, that’s the bottom line,” said O’Sullivan. “Otherwise, it starts to slip further and further away and it gets to the point where it’s impossible to recover. It’s really important to win these three games and come back with some momentum after the All-Star break.”
“We’ve got to find a way to win,” Kopitar stressed. “This is a time when teams show what they’re made of. This is going to be the ultimate test for us and we’ve got to respond. This road trip is huge for us. We’ve got to find a way to win.”
Head coach Terry Murray knows his team has to turn things around on the current road trip.
“It can make it, I’m not sure if it’ll break it,” Murray said about the road trip’s implications for his team’s playoff hopes. “It would sure make a large statement for us if we can get some good performances on the road here. You can’t fall far behind in this game and we know that.”
“In this league it is very hard to catch up the last couple of months after the All-Star break,” Murray added. “It gets tighter, it gets harder and if you’re out of it by then, it’s a very hard thing to claw back in. Not only do you have to play extremely well, but the teams in front of you have to play poorly.”
As poorly as the Kings have played over their last handful of games, any turnaround is going to have to be a full 180-degree turn, as they have gotten away from their system, resulting in numerous breakdowns and turnovers in all three zones.
“[Our inability to generate scoring chances was] because we didn’t get the puck in on a consistent basis to have some kind of forecheck going,” Murray said after his team’s loss to the Red Wings on January 15. “We turned it over far too often at the offensive blue line, in that gray zone five feet on either side and when you do that you just end up chasing the game.”
Indeed, the Kings have been doing little more than chasing their opponents in recent games.
“This all comes from within and we have to find ways to piece it together,” said left wing Kyle Calder. ”We need twenty guys pulling together. We have to find ways to be better as a team. We can’t get into a groove that we have players trying to do it themselves. We have to play as a good group.”
“When you go through a slump like this, it’s part confidence and trying to do too much,” Brown explained. “We need to come together and play that team game we showed earlier in the year.”
“We’re a good team, we just need to play together,” Brown emphasized. The last few games we’ve been less confident with our system play and the result is guys doing double duty and that’s where you miss checks. Mistakes happen that way.”
“That’s the one thing I’ve seen in the last several games,” said Murray. “We just get away from our structure, from our system, whenever there’s some adversity. We’ve got people on the wrong side of the ice, we’re just not thinking it out and showing the composure to generate the attack the right way.”
Confidence and composure have become serious issues over the past few game.
“Confidence? That’s been pretty clear over the last several games that we’re not handling the puck well, passing it with authority or carrying the puck to generate something off the rush,” Murray lamented. “We’re refusing to put pucks to the net. That’s a sign of really gripping the stick too tight. You get into the shooting areas, whether they’re bad angles or really great shooting areas. It really doesn’t matter. You’ve got to get pucks to the net and make something happen out of nothing sometimes. We’re trying to make the perfect play. It is clearly a confidence issue right now.”
“It’s everybody,” Murray noted. “The power play is not working very well for us right now. We’re having a tough time just to get up into the offensive zone and set up. But you can clearly see when we do get it set up, we’re refusing to do the right thing with it. We’re overpassing, over-looking, trying to make another play that’s maybe a little bit better than where you are. So it’s everybody. It’s not just your top guys. We’re not getting shots through from the blue line. There’s lot of stuff getting blocked right now.”
The sagging power play (ranked 17th in the league at 17.7%) has contributed to the team’s offensive woes—the Kings are dead last in the league in scoring, averaging just 2.37 goals per game going in action on January 17.
But the problems are more fundamental than just straying from their system or lacking confidence or composure. Indeed, the Kings simply do not seem to be working hard enough nor are they displaying the necessary hunger to succeed.
“We’ve got to get ourselves out of this,” Murray lamented. “We’re bringing a lot of the problems on ourselves with [poor] puck management. We’re turning pucks over and not getting enough pucks to the net. We’ve got to be much hungrier than what we are to get to the net, put more pucks to the net and look for something, maybe an ugly goal just to get us started.”
“A lot of it is our compete [level],” Brown stressed. “We need everyone competing. We can’t have a handful of guys one night, another handful of guys the next night. We need all twenty guys doing what it takes. Until we have that we’re not going to be a good team. There’s 82 games in a year and you can’t take any of them off.”
“We have chances to finish checks and we don’t finish checks,” Brown fumed. “If you’re a skilled team you can get away with that, but we don’t have enough skill to win games [by relying on their skill] right now. We need to outwork teams and out-compete them.”
To be sure, the Kings have not put in a solid effort from start to finish since they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers on January 3.
“I think there’s a lot of things but I think we need to put together a full sixty minutes,” said O’Sullivan. “Each individual has to worry about themselves and what they have to do and just do their job. We can’t have any breakdowns in games.”
“We have to be mentally prepared, I think that’s what it comes down to right now,” said defenseman Matt Greene. “Guys want to win, guys want to make this push for the playoffs. It’s just a matter of everyone figuring out their own way of how to do it, how to prepare themselves, how to make themselves ready from the drop of the puck.”
Murray said that communication is key to turning his team back in the other direction.
“We’ve got to keep pushing that’s all,” he said. “You’ve got to keep talking about it, practicing it and get things turned around. There’s an elephant in the room, you’ve got to talk about it. You have to address the issues that are out there and keep building on the good things. We can stand there and talk about negative things that are going to push us further out of the race, but we have to keep our heads up, we have to keep going, we have to keep working hard and doing the smart work also.”
That goes for the players on the ice as well.
“The best thing for the players to regain composure is to talk on the ice,” Murray explained. “There’s a lot of pressure. The best way for composure to stay in the game is for the guy who’s away from the puck to talk to the guy who’s going to go get it or the guy who has it.”
“It’s not just talk,” Murray elaborated. “It’s yelling. Whether it’s ‘time’ or ‘I’m open,’ whatever play that might be there, it buys that player who has the puck an extra second and that’s all it takes. It shows your teammates care and you’re going to dig in and do the right thing for your teammates. It sounds simple but you have to work through it.”
The Kings have played the fewest road games in the National Hockey League to this point in the season and they are hoping that going out on the road will have positive effects.
“At this point, I think being on the road is good,” said Brown. “We need to play a tough game on the road.”
“Hopefully we can play better on the road,” said O’Sullivan. “I think it’ll be good for our team to get on the road. We’ve been home a lot the first half. Hopefully, some time together with just the team can make a difference on the ice.”
Even though they have not shown any semblance of a sense of urgency on the ice lately, the Kings know that their playoff hopes are in very serious jeopardy. With virtually no room for error the rest of the way, especially with so many road games ahead of them, the players know that their backs are up against the proverbial wall.
“We’ve got to find a way, first of all, to score, and then find a way to win,” Kopitar stressed. “We have to start winning games. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to look at ourselves. Everyone’s got to breathe in and figure out how is he going to step up at the key moment. We’re going to need twenty guys to win games, not ten, not fifteen, but twenty guys. I think everybody’s got to bring something to the table, whether you’re playing five, fifteen or twenty-five minutes.”
“This slump means nothing,” said Brown. “It’s just that we need to look forward and focus on these next three games. People have to come to work, prepared to work.”
“It’s do or die time for us.”
If that last comment by Brown reminded you of the phrase, “Truer Words Were Never Spoken,” you certainly are not alone.
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