Make It Or Break It Time For The Los Angeles Kings

LOS ANGELES — After a 4-1-1 road trip and a 7-1-1 record in their previous nine games, the Los Angeles Kings returned to the comforts of home and apparently, life at home is good…

Too good.

Indeed, perhaps all the home cooking and sleeping in their own beds made the Kings a little too comfortable because since returning to Southern California, they have been shutout by the Calgary Flames on February 12, 2-0, and then the Edmonton Oilers handed the Kings a 3-2 shootout loss on February 14.

In both games, the Kings started slow, but wound up outplaying the Flames and Oilers for the vast majority of their respective games, but something was missing from the Kings’ effort in each game that proved costly in the end.</p>

Against the Flames, the Kings outskated and outworked the opposition along the boards and in the corners. Their strong forecheck created numerous turnovers and they also played well defensively.

“We played a fairly solid game for coming back home for a first game against a very good team, a tough team,” said Kings center Jarret Stoll. “They’re a tough team to play against. I thought we outplayed them for a good portion of the game.”

The problem was that they forgot about getting bodies in front of the Calgary net, allowing Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff to see virtually every shot all the way—he ended up having a very easy time pitching his fourth shutout of the season and his 30th regular season shutout in the National Hockey League.

“The effort, the work side of it, the structure and the system, everything was great,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “But the part that’s missing when you have a goaltender that’s as good as Kiprusoff is you have to make life a little more difficult for him.”

“You have to make [Kiprusoff] work around you,” added Murray. “When he’s on, he’s one of the best and shooting the puck from anywhere on the ice, if he doesn’t have any obstruction there, he’s going to make the save. That’s where we have to get dirtier and uglier and battle hard.”

Against the Oilers, the Kings apparently forgot that a hockey game is sixty minutes in length. They did not start competing hard until the second period began and by that time, they were looking up at a 2-0 deficit.

“It’s good to get one [point in the standings], but it’s a little better to get two,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar. “That first period wasn’t the scenario that we wanted to put on the table. But that happens sometimes. They were jumping on the loose pucks.”

“We wanted to come out better than what we did,” said Murray. “The first period, I didn’t feel that we were skating. It was a playoff atmosphere, it’s that kind of importance but we did not respond as we needed to.”

“But the second and third was terrific,” added Murray. “It was hard work, it was a hard game, down along the boards, outside of the dots kind of play.”

“In the second and third period we dominated,” said Kopitar. “We had twenty more shots than they did. It seems we generate a lot of chances but we’re not getting any lucky breaks. I’m sure if we’re creating those breaks are going to come.”

The Kings are 0-1-1 on their three-game home stand and have lost ground in the Western Conference playoff race, now five points out of a playoff spot going into action on February 16.

“You’ve got to find ways to win those games,” said Stoll. “It doesn’t matter if you’re up against a hot goaltender of if you’re not getting the bounces. You’ve got to try to find a way to get the bounces and get a lucky one or two. That’s what we just talked about in here. We have to try to find a way to win those games.”

“Those are games you have to find a way to win,” Murray lamented. “You’re making a push to make the playoffs. A win puts you one point back of getting over that threshold and getting into that top group. You have to find a way to do it. If you let too many of those opportunities slide by, again, you’re chasing from behind too far and it’s a tough road to climb back up again.”

“You can’t have one of those nights,” Murray elaborated. “When you’re coming home and you’ve got some momentum, you’ve played well, you have to find a way to do it. You’ve got to score, you have to win the game.”

Indeed, with the stretch drive for the playoffs in full swing, every game, every point is precious and with the Kings on the outside looking in, they cannot afford the inconsistent play.

“The points are critical,” said Murray. “Because of the importance and the preparation we’ve had for this three-game home stand, the fact that we had a great road trip, bringing that momentum back, we needed to have a better start. That was important. Come out with energy and our skating ability and doing the right things like we did in the second and third, in my mind, I’d like to think the results would’ve been different.”

The Longer View

Despite earning just one out of a possible four points in the standings in the two home games, it is not yet time to panic, as the Kings are still 7-2-2 in their last eleven games, earning sixteen out of a possible twenty-two points.

But the odds are still heavily against the Kings, who will play nineteen out of their remaining 28 games on the road, including what could easily be their most important stretch this season, with seven of their next nine games on the road and with all of those road games against teams ahead of them in the standings.

Nevertheless, the Kings are still within reach of a playoff spot, but they will have to turn things around quickly and get back to their winning ways if they want to remain in contention. To do that, they are going to need to generate more offense.

In the two games against Calgary and Edmonton, the Kings scored just two goals, which emphasizes the fact that the Kings were scoring goals in bunches during their five-game road trip just prior to the current home stand.

“We were scoring goals, that ended up being the difference,” Murray explained. “On the road trip, our high-end guys started to get some results on the offensive part of the game. Combine that with your goaltender who has played really well—[Jonathan] Quick was good on the road for us. Our structure, system, team play defensively has been good all year. But the one thing is that we were putting pucks in the net.”

On the trip, Murray finally settled on some forward line combinations that have worked, with Kopitar centering left wing Patrick O’Sullivan and right wing Alexander Frolov and with Stoll centering left wing Kyle Calder and right wing Dustin Brown.

“I like the chemistry, I like what’s happening,” said Murray. “I’ll stay with them right now. We’re playing instinctively. We’re reacting to the situations out there. As a result, we’ll have some good scoring opportunities.”

Kopitar has benefitted from the changes, scoring seven goals and adding eight assists for fifteen points in his last sixteen games.

“It feels good,” said Kopitar. “The confidence is back a little bit. I feel that I’ve been skating with the puck like I was in previous years and creating scoring chances off that. I think that’s my strength, carrying the puck up the ice. I did that a couple of times today and I hope I can keep that going.”

“It’s hard to say now that everything’s been going good, obviously, you want to keep it going like that,” added Kopitar. “I think we come to the game with a good mindset of checking first, playing good defense first and playing the system. We obviously believe in our system. It’s working for us. When you get a good defense, you get good scoring chances too.”

As reported earlier, the Kings are now in a stretch of games where seven of their next nine are on the road with all of their road opponents being ahead of them in the standings. Conventional wisdom dictates that not only should the Kings come out of that brutal stretch with a losing record, but it could also end their playoff hopes for the season.

But coming off a 4-1-1 road trip, anything seems to be possible for this young Kings team.

“Maybe we needed the time to be on the road,” Kopitar said about his team’s last road trip. When you’re here [at home], everybody’s with their family and friends. Myself, I have family in town so I don’t hang out as much with the boys like I do on the road—going for dinner with all the guys every night. I think it helps us bond. Maybe that’s what we needed and we can definitely feel confidence going out on the road after our last trip.”

“I know we’re young, I know nobody expected us to be in the position we’re in now,” added Kopitar. “We have some games in hand with the teams that are ahead of us. Everybody’s really excited to play in these kinds of games. It’s really fun as opposed to last year at this time, we knew we weren’t going to make it. It’s definitely fun. You’re playing for the playoffs and we want to make a push and put it all out there to make it.”

Indeed, the attitude and atmosphere around the Kings is different from what it was at this time in recent years past.

“Coming to the rink knowing you’re not going to make the playoffs doesn’t make it fun at all,” Kopitar explained. “The guys are in a bad mood and you’re trying to cheer everybody up. Everybody’s trying to be happy but the bottom line is losing is definitely not fun.”

“Right now, we’re on a good roll,” Kopitar noted. “Yeah, we lost today but there are still some really big games for us ahead. We have to take it day-by-day and put points on the board.”

Quite the understatement, to be sure.

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