ANALYSIS: Youth and inexperience leading to inconsistent play will lead to the Los Angeles Kings missing out on the post-season party yet again this season. Nevertheless, the Kings are making progress and are on the upswing.
LOS ANGELES — When the Los Angeles Kings hit the ice tonight against the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston (4:00 PM PDT), they will find themselves in thirteenth place in the Western Conference, seven points out of the eighth and final playoff berth with thirteen games left in the regular season.
If you think that sounds tough, wait…it gets worse.
The Kings begin a six-game road trip tonight that not only starts against the third-best team in the National Hockey League, but each opponent on the trip is ahead of them in the overall standings, making their task that much more difficult.
That task is to win all six games—they are so far behind in the playoff race making anything less the likely final nail in their coffin.
Of course, the chances of that happening are worse than the short-term outlook for the economy in the United States and around the world.
Yes, it is time to write the epitaph for the Kings, who will miss the playoffs once again in the 2008-09 season. The big reason? Their lack of consistent play, in large part because of their relative youth and inexperience.
Indeed, their inability to put in a more consistent effort throughout the season is a glaring reason the Kings will not win enough games to qualify for the playoffs this season. In fact, this is a concept the young Kings are still learning.
“We don’t know how to dig in some nights, every night, 82 games,” head coach Terry Murray explained. “We’re learning that. It’s getting better.”
Having young leaders who are still learning adds to that challenge.
“Trying to learn how to dig in every night is hard,” said Murray. “It becomes a leadership issue sometimes where guys really have to takeover ownership in the locker room.”
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” added Murray. “There’s a lot of reasons, there’s a lot of things you look at as a coach but some of them slipped away.”
Another cause for the Kings inconsistency is that at times, the players try to do too much.
“It takes everybody,” said Murray. “The team has to play well, you have to play within your structure, you have to play in your system. It starts good, but when it comes down to making plays at critical times of the game, we don’t make the plays.”
“It’s the puck management that we’ve talked about and that we’ve been talking about,” added Murray. “I’ve talked about it since the very start of the year, that you’ve got to do the right things through the middle of the ice and get the puck in the right position to have offensive opportunities.”
“We got a little cute and tried to take more than what was there,” Murray lamented. “This comes down to the individual. I’m not throwing any name out there. It’s as a group, but it’s individual play to manage the puck the right way in those situations.”
“You want to establish your forecheck game, do the right things to have speed to the puck and have offensive zone play,” Murray elaborated. “[But then we] think we can do a little bit more with it and it comes right back at you. In a circumstance where it’s this game, at this time of the year, simple is better.”
Murray said that is how playoff teams succeed.
“Keep the game real simple in those situations because that’s what happens in a playoff atmosphere,” he said. “In those big games, it’s that one little decision you make where you think you can do something different and it gets you outside the structure of what the team wants. You’ll pay a price. You either need a great save at the other end or it’s going to be a goal on you.”
The players know what they have to do but executing consistently is not easy.
“You have to come every night, we can’t take any nights off,” said defenseman Kyle Quincey. “We can’t give teams easy wins. You look back at the season and there’s a lot of games that got away,” added Quincey. “But going forward into the next game, you can’t think like that. You just have to go and get those two points.”
“We dug ourselves a hole,” added Quincey. “We’ve learned from our mistakes. Playing with a lead—we’re a lot better. We lost a lot of leads early in the year and we fixed that. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Moving forward is exactly what the Kings are doing, playoffs or not. Indeed, despite the inconsistent play all season, there are signs of hope that have not been seen from the Kings in an eternity.
“We’re starting to grasp onto some of those ideas that are going to pay off for us and are the basis for becoming a good hockey club,” said Murray. “I would hope and think there is some understanding of what you have to do to win hockey games, the desperation, the mentality you have to bring, the preparation each individual has to have to match the intensity right from the start, set the tone right from the very start by doing the right things—the simple plays. Getting the puck in behind the defense and getting things going on the forecheck and on the cycle.”
One sign is that, much more often than at any point in recent years past, this team plays for each other.
“When you’re winning hockey games, you come together as a group and everyone does the right stuff and just digs in and does it,” Murray stressed. “No matter who it is, you do it for the team, you do it for the win.”
An example of that came on March 9 when the Kings defeated the Vancouver Canucks, 3-2 at Staples Center.
In the final minute, the Canucks had pulled goaltender Roberto Luongo for the extra attacker and had a great chance taken away by Kings defenseman Matt Greene, who sacrificed his body by blocking two shots…the second one with his face.
“That’s about winning hockey,” Murray beamed. “That’s about being a hockey player. There were a lot of big plays in the third period. We, at times, showed a little lack of composure with the puck. We should’ve made plays, could’ve made plays. Maybe we were feeling the stress of the 3-2 game. But whenever they would get possession of the puck, there was a lot of digging in. There was a lot board play, hard play, one-on-one. There were a lot of people getting in shot lanes to block shots.”
“That covers the board play, blocking shots, taking big hits to protect the puck,” Murray added. “Greene lying down and taking shots like that—blocking shots and taking the second one off his head and then jumping right back up into the play to make sure nothing was going to happen with more pucks coming to the net was incredible. That’s playing for your team.”
Another sign of progress is that, no matter how you look at it, the fact that this team is still playing meaningful games in mid-March cannot be downplayed or ignored.
Indeed, when you realize that last season’s Kings were out of playoff contention by mid-December, the significance of this year’s team staying in the hunt until mid-March is magnified ten-fold.
“I don’t think anybody believed we would still be in the playoff race right now,” said center Anze Kopitar. “Just from talking with all the media, it was supposed to be another rebuilding year. It’s definitely good playing games like this when every point matters, when every small detail matters.”
“It’s exciting,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “This team, whatever the outcome is, whether we make’em or we miss’em—obviously, we’re looking to make’em—to be in this type of atmosphere this late in the season is a huge growth period for this team that will pay dividends, not only this year, but for years to come.”
But Brown knows that those words do not provide much relief for long-suffering fans clamoring for playoff hockey in Los Angeles this season.
“We had two mental lapses tonight,” Brown explained after his team’s loss to Nashville. “That’s the difference and that’s going to be the difference for this team until we learn how to play at that consistent level for the full sixty [minutes].”
“This team, in one word, is close,” Brown stressed. “But close isn’t cutting it right now.”
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