LOS ANGELES — A little over two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Kings were circling the drain as they often do around this time of year, spiraling quickly out of playoff contention.
After their last game at Staples Center before leaving the friendly confines for a three-game road trip, the Kings knew they were about to embark on do-or-die mission to Dallas, Minnesota and Colorado.
“We need to win these next three games, that’s the bottom line,” said left wing Patrick 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,” center Anze 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.”
Although they lost the first game at Dallas, they earned a point in the standings in the 3-2 shootout loss. And with wins at Minnesota and Colorado, the Kings returned to Los Angeles picking up five out of a possible six points in the standings.
In short, they were still alive.
After some welcome rest during the All-Star break, the Kings hosted the Chicago Blackhawks on January 29 and despite a sloppy effort that could have easily handed a win to the Blackhawks, the Kings won their third straight game with a 5-2 victory, earning them a very impressive seven out of a possible eight points in the standings.
In the three victories, the Kings scored thirteen goals, averaging 4.33 goals per game, this from an offense that was ranked dead last in the league prior to the three-game road swing when they were averaging just 2.37 goals per game.
A big reason for their offensive woes was that they were too cute with the puck, looking for the extra pass far too often instead of getting the puck to the net and crashing the net for rebounds.
But during the three-game trip and against the Blackhawks, the Kings looked like a different team.
“The focal point of the game here tonight, because you’ve been off for so long, is let’s not look for anything different, let’s not look for a better play,” Kings head coach Terry Murray explained following the win against the Blackhawks. “I think we get labeled with that often, where we try to make one more pass looking for something a bit better, a little bit easier, a tap-in goal.”
“We talked about a quick shot attitude the whole night tonight,” Murray elaborated. “Anywhere in the offensive zone, we wanted to get the puck to the net as quickly as possible.”
Another big factor has been the emergence of a new forward line that features left wing Kyle Calder and right wing Dustin Brown centered by Jarret Stoll.
“They play hard, they score big goals, they really have some good chemistry happening right now,” said Murray. “It’s just something that’s come together. They’re feeding off each other and energizing each other.”
Indeed. Over the last five games, the Kings are 3-1-1 with the Stoll line leading the way with a combined eleven goals and twelve assists for fifteen points.
Leading the way on that line has been none other than the captain, Dustin Brown, who has been on fire with six goals and four assists for ten points during that stretch, which includes points in five straight games.
Calder (two goals and five assists for seven points) also has points in five straight games while Stoll (three goals and two assists for five points) has earned points in four straight.
Just prior to the All-Star break, the Kings received a big boost with the return of defenseman Jack Johnson, who suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder during the second game of the season against the San Jose Sharks and missed 41 games.
Johnson returned against Dallas on January 15, and has averaged 21:08 in ice time, with his ice time increasing to a high of 24:15 in the Kings’ 4-3 loss at Montreal on January 31 to start the team’s current five-game road swing.
Despite the loss to the Canadiens, Johnson has been an asset to the Kings’ blue line corps.
“[Johnson is a] big guy, strong, quick on his feet, closes fast defensively, plays the body,” Murray said after the win against the Blackhawks. “It’s four games and he’s only going to get better as we move forward here.”
In the short time he has been back, Johnson is clearly a different player from what he was last season.
“I have a little bit more freedom, more confidence,” said Johnson. “Confidence is everything. I didn’t have a lot of it last year. I guess that’s mainly my own fault for letting that slip. I’m just a more confident player this year. I’m a year older and a year smarter.”
Johnson returns to a defensive corps that is radically different from last season, one where he felt he had to take a bit of a back seat to the likes of veterans Rob Blake, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Preissing and Brad Stuart, and, as a result, his play did not meet expectations.
“I was playing on a team with a lot of great defensemen and I knew where I stacked up in that group and I accepted that,” said Johnson. “I just think it was my own fault for letting my confidence slip. I’m going to do my best to never let that happen again.”
Johnson also returns to the lineup with at least twenty pounds of muscle he did not have last season.
“I’ve put on a good twenty pounds,” he said. “I think I might’ve just hit one of those lucky growth spurts that helped out a lot.”
When adding muscle, players sometimes lose speed and quickness, but not Johnson, who flew down right wing and put a quick spin move on a Chicago defenseman that still has the defender wondering where his jock strap is.
“That was my biggest concern over the summer,” Johnson stressed. “You can’t lose any speed. You can be as strong or as big as you want but if you can’t move, you’re in a lot of trouble. I really concentrated on that over the summer, to have a good balance.”
The added bulk and strength has made him a more effective player.
“It definitely gives you some confidence,” said Johnson. “I’m more confident going into the corners with guys, hitting guys, clearing guys out in front of the net. It all piles up. The little things add up mentally.”
The road to recovery after surgery to repair the injury was a long one, but Johnson worked hard to get back in the lineup as quickly as possible.
“I was still working hard while I was out,” Johnson explained. “I was practicing and skating a lot. I wasn’t just sitting around resting.”
While he was off the ice, Johnson was not just rehabilitating the shoulder.
“I was working out whatever else I could to get stronger while I wasn’t playing, but other than that, it was to get the shoulder healed as quickly as possible,” he said.
Despite the long layoff, Johnson found his timing quickly.
“I think after the first period of the Dallas game I felt fine,” he explained. “I don’t feel like I missed a beat, I didn’t feel too uncomfortable or anything right from the get-go.”
Johnson’s return gives the Kings good reason to be excited about the possibilities for the road ahead, even though it is unlikely to be anything less than a very bumpy ride.
“It’s great to have him, he’s excited to be back, too,” said Murray. “He’s got lots of energy and lots of game left in him for the rest of the year.”
“It’s great, it’s just another threat back there, another guy with speed,” said Stoll. “Him and [rookie defenseman] Drew [Doughty] back there, they’re like forwards the way they handle the puck and carry the puck and move it. It’s nice for [Johnson] to be back. It’s been a long time waiting for him to get back in the lineup and it’s no secret we’re starting to win now.”
“I’m definitely more excited to get going,” said Johnson. “I have a lot of excited energy that a lot of the guys going through the mid-season grind wouldn’t have. I’m just looking forward to playing more games. It’s been hard the last three months, sitting around doing nothing. But I’m glad to get back, trying to get the rest of the season in. I feel good out there and the team’s playing well.”
Not A Good Start
The Kings are now in the midst of a five-game road trip and they got off to a bad start on Saturday in a 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
Despite a strong performance, the Kings were unable to capitalize on several chances to put the game away and were undisciplined, giving the Canadiens eleven power play opportunities, allowing two power play goals.
The Stoll line led the way for the Kings once again, scoring two goals and combining for five points, but it was not enough, as the Canadiens scored a power play goal at 19:37 of the third period to seal the win.
“It was a good 59-minute game, but at this point in the year, you can say what you want, but we need to start winning these games,” Brown told the Associated Press. “We’ve blown too many of these games, which are valuable points.”
At 3:50 of the second period, Kings defenseman Denis Gauthier laid out Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges with a vicious hit along the left wing glass in the Kings’ zone.
On the play, Gorges was carrying the puck down left wing when Gauthier lined him up and drilled him into the glass. But Gauthier left his feet on the hit and led with his elbow, driving his right elbow into Gorges’ head.
Gorges got up on his feet after the hit, but was clearly dazed and woozy and had to be helped off the ice. He returned to the game later in the period, But did not play in the third period.
Gauthier received a major penalty for charging and a game misconduct, resulting in his ejection.
There was no word after the game regarding Gorges’ condition.
The play will certainly be reviewed by the league and Gauthier, who has been suspended by the National Hockey League three times for previous incidents, is likely to be suspended with harsher punishment because he is a repeat offender.
On the bright side for the Kings, they should be able to forge ahead without even blinking an eye. After all, throughout the season Gauthier’s primary contribution has been physical play. But his defensive play, especially in the Kings’ zone, is generally lacking.
Indeed, with the return of Johnson, who can bring the physical game and play solid defense at the same time, Gauthier is now marginally relevant, at best, on this very young Kings team.
Despite the rough start to the trip, the Kings must remain positive as they are still in the hunt for a playoff spot.
“Hopefully, we can play simple, smart road games and get some points out of them,” said Stoll. “It all comes from being smart and just playing our system to a tee.”
“I think that trip we just came home from, getting five out of six points in those three games was huge,” added Stoll. “We have to play that kind of hockey. We’ve got to be gritty and be a great checking team. With the skill in this room here we know we can score goals when the time comes. That’s what we did on that road trip.”
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