LOS ANGELES — Two games into the 2009-10 season, the Los Angeles Kings are right where most everyone expected them to be, sporting a 1-1-0 record.
But that did not happen, to coin a phrase, according to Hoyle.
Instead, the Kings looked more like the Keystone Kops than a National Hockey League team in an embarrassing 6-3 loss to the Coyotes and then turned right around and defeated the Sharks on October 6, 6-4.
Against the Coyotes, one word describes the Kings’ performance.
Phoenix easily ran around, past and through the hapless Kings in the Kings’ home opener. They were so bad that the phrase “comedy of errors” does not even begin to describe just how awful they were, especially in their own end.
Poor positioning. Standing around and watching the other team. Lack of poise. Poor decision-making. Blatant turnovers. Failure to win physical battles. The list of problems was very, very lengthy.
“It’s definitely not the start we wanted,” said center Anze Kopitar, who scored a goal and added an assist in the game. “We had some breakdowns in the defensive zone that led to their six goals.”
“We weren’t managing the puck good, we weren’t passing the puck, we didn’t play heavy enough or support each other,” added Kopitar. “Those are all small details that lead to a good result in the end.”
The Kings saved their worst for their own zone.
“It has to be a team effort in the defensive zone and we did not have that tonight,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi. “We had guys who were covering the same guy, we’d lose our coverage on a one-on-one and it created a small two-on-one. That’s all any NHL player needs to create some space and some two-on-ones in front of the net and they were able to do that for the majority of the night.”
“It’s tough to create in your defensive zone for your team,” added Scuderi. “Every time we got the puck out, we had to make a line change and get off the ice because you played thirty seconds of defense. That’s all you can play if you’re doing it the right way and we weren’t generating anything offensively.”
Scuderi said that the young Kings have to learn how to play at a consistently high level.
“We had some periods in the first and third where they couldn’t generate much, but that’s not enough,” he said. “You can’t even give a team ten minutes in this league. Otherwise, they’re going to turn that into a couple of goals.”
“That’s something that can’t happen,” he added. “We’ve been preaching team defense and that’s got to be our building block. That just wasn’t the case tonight. I don’t know how many quality scoring chances between the dots we gave up and that can’t happen if we’re going to be a consistently winning team.”
Head coach Terry Murray saw things much the same way that Kopitar and Scuderi did.
“That’s probably the worst scenario you can have on an opening night,” Murray lamented. “We looked very out of synch, we were not passing the puck well, over-handling, a lot of turnovers. Just sloppy play.”
“Making plays was not there,” Murray added. “That was something we did well last year on a game-to-game basis and that was not evident here at all.”
Then there were the turnovers. And not the little ones that a player can sometimes get away with that many people fail to notice. Rather, these were big, fat turnovers, the ones everyone sees coming a mile away and always end up with a goal by the team receiving the overly generous gift.
“There might be three or four goals where we had the puck and ended up turning it over,” said Murray. “We were going one way and ended up turning the puck over and they were coming back at us in odd-man situations. That’s the part we have to be better at.”
Goaltender Jonathan Quick allowed six goals on thirty shots against, but he could not be blamed for the loss.
“I had no thoughts of pulling Quick,” said Murray. “I’d like him to be better. The first goal [a blast from the right face-off dot by Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata], I’d like to have that one back. But then the giveaways were a couple of real fast plays in front of him that he had no opportunity on. He’s our number one guy.”
Their performance, or lack thereof, against the Coyotes seemed to come from out of nowhere.
“We finished the exhibition games playing at a pretty good level,” Murray noted. “Our practices have been good. If there was an opening night nervousness with this young group, that could be it. But on the other side, you’ve got to work through it.”
“You’ve got to be a lot better than what we showed tonight,” Murray stressed. “Just with puck management, it was not good enough and its got to get better fast.”
With a game against the Sharks just two days away, the Kings could not afford to let this loss get to them, no matter how embarrassing it might have been.
“It’s shocking, but it’s not the end of the world,” said Scuderi. “As a team, you have to be able to learn from your mistakes. Although this was incredibly disappointing and not the debut we wanted to make in front of our home fans, all we can do is look past it and learn from the lessons we had here tonight and that’s not to come apart as a team, because we certainly did tonight.”
“We have to learn from this one and there’s got to be a big understanding about why we do things and how we have to do it to get prepared [for the next game],” Murray explained. “But we have to move by it. You can’t let it linger. We’ll talk about, we’ll review the game on video but we have to get ourselves prepared for the next game.”
A MIXED TURNAROUND
Whatever the Kings did in practice prior to their contest against the Sharks worked…for the most part.
Indeed, after jumping out to a 4-0 lead a bit more than halfway through their game against the Sharks, the Kings wound up blowing that lead, allowing four power play goals on four San Jose power plays.
But just 26 seconds after Sharks forward Dany Heatley scored his first goal with the Sharks at 14:24 of the third period to tie the game, Kings forward Teddy Purcell scored on an easy wrist shot from the below the goal line in the right corner to give the Kings a 5-4 lead. Purcell’s goal was a bad goal—the puck snuck between the pads of Sharks backup goalie Thomas Greiss, who relieved starting netminder Evgeni Nabokov after Kopitar scored on a long wrist shot from high in the right circle, a soft goal, at 12:16 of the second period.
“The goal that was scored by Purcell—that’s a shot mentality,” said Murray. “There’s not a lot of guys who are even going to think about putting pucks to the net in that position. Not a lot of guys would score on that, either. It seem to come to the guys who have that knack and Purcell is a scorer. It’s good to see it go in.”
Right wing Dustin Brown added that one of the aspects of the game the Kings improved upon from their debacle against Phoenix was their presence in front of the San Jose net.
“[Purcell’s goal was] the result of getting guys to the net all night,” said Brown. [Right wing Wayne] Simmonds’ goal and [left wing Ryan] Smyth’s goal were the result of guys crashing the net, making it hard for the goalie to see the puck.”
“When you throw pucks at the net from sharp angles, with guys there, you never know what can happen,” added Brown. “It’s another area we need to continue to build on.”
The Kings were solid at even strength in this game, another big improvement over their performance against the Coyotes.
“I thought, at even strength, we did a great job keeping them to the outside, even their big guys, their dangerous players,” said Scuderi. “We made the right, simple plays, kept the puck going north and we didn’t give them a chance to set-up for too long.”
“If you look at our five-on-five play, we didn’t give them that many opportunities,” said Brown. “They had four power play goals tonight. If you look at the Phoenix game, we beat ourselves with our passing. We set them up for two one-timers, the turnovers. Tonight, the Sharks had to earn everything they got and they did it all on the power play. Our five-on-five play was much better.”
“When we play within our structure, we’re a pretty tough team to play against,” added Brown. “We also limited a lot of our mistakes, which prevented them from getting a lot of chances [at even strength]. Our game is a lot of chipping, checking and getting guys to the front of the net. That wears on their defense big time. It’s a more simple, better executed game.”
Their head coach was quite pleased with his team’s turnaround at even strength.
“It was the way it was last year,” said Murray. “I thought we were a real good shot-blocking team last year. We collapsed and did our job in our home plate attitude and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I think tonight we saw a little bit of what it was last year.”
“[Center Michal] Handzus’ line was outstanding,” added Murray. “They were matched up against [Sharks star center Joe] Thornton on almost every shift and that’s a big challenge. That’s where that line with [winger Alexander] Frolov and Simmonds answered that challenge. They love that kind of attitude going into the game and they were very, very good against premier players in the game.”
The Kings were forced to respond physically as well.
At the 13:24 mark of the second period, Sharks forward Brad Staubitz took a run at Kings defenseman Davis Drewiske, who was chasing down a puck for an icing call. On the play, Staubitz led with his elbow while Drewiske was engaged with another Sharks forward. Staubitz’ elbow struck Drewiske squarely in the head.
Drewiske was slow to get up, but was not injured. The Kings took exception to the highly questionable hit and enforcer Raitis Ivanans wanted to go after Staubitz, but he made a very quick beeline to safety at the San Jose bench.
Instead, Ivanans duked it out with San Jose tough guy Jody Shelley, with the clear decision going to Ivanans, who was visibly upset with Staubitz for taking liberties on Drewiske.
Supporting teammates in similar situations was a problem last season for the Kings, but not this time.
“I really like what Ivanans did after the hit on Drewiske,” Murray emphasized. “They were trying to get something going. They got some energy guys out on the ice and they were trying to stimulate their team and get it excited about something. They got a hit, but Raitis stepped right in to support his teammate. It was a great job by him.”
“It might’ve gotten them underway a little bit, but I think in the long term, those kinds of plays by our guys are critical to our success,” Murray added.
Indeed, there were many more positives in this game for the Kings than there were three nights earlier. But there was one, huge negative…blowing their 4-0 lead due to poor penalty-killing.
“We’re glad that we stayed composed to get the win, but the penalty-kill has got to be better,” Scuderi lamented. “It put the game in jeopardy and it should never have been that way. But, for the most part, the guys stayed composed and at least we came back and won the game.”
The first Sharks power play goal illustrated just how bad the Kings were on the penalty-kill.
On the play, Sharks winger Devin Setoguchi took a pass at the left inner hashmark—he was wide open in the slot without a Kings defender anywhere near him. He took a pass from Thornton and, at the 16:00 mark of the second period, easily one-timed the puck past Quick, who had no chance.
“That’s a play between the dots, a dangerous shot, that’s something we can’t allow as a penalty-kill,” said Scuderi. “If we’re going to be a consistently winning team, we can’t have that type of effort.”
“They’ve got some good players,” added Scuderi. “They got a lucky bounce on one, but they other ones? We just have to be better. They’ve got talented players, but we’ve got to have our sticks in the lanes, at least deny them the back door passes and make them shoot the puck.”
To be sure, the Kings have not been good on the penalty-kill in their first two games of the season. But it is too early to be overly concerned.
“I don’t know if it was our penalty-klll or the San Jose power play,” said Murray. “They’ve got some world-class players out there and they move the puck around awfully well. Maybe we got spread out a little bit—they found the middle again. We’ll have to take a look at it and address it.”
“We’re going to watch video and figure out what’s going on,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’re making little errors and a power play like that is going to capitalize on it.”
“We were top ten in the penalty-kill last year,” said Brown. “Penalty-killing is something you have to work out early on and you have to give them credit. You’ve got five pretty good players moving the puck around. It’s not going to be easy to kill off penalties against that team. They can pretty much do it all. But that’s something we’re not too worried about. It’s just a matter of looking at video and seeing where we can be better. That kind of stuff works itself out.”
DOUGHTY COMES BACK STRONG
Against Phoenix, Doughty played the worst game of his NHL career, marked most notably by two hideous turnovers that handed easy, gift-wrapped goals for the Coyotes.
Doughty’s atrocious performance already had some people talking about the dreaded sophomore jinx that so many young players go through. But the second-year defenseman turned in a much better effort against San Jose.
“We were pretty disappointed with the home opener, the way we performed,” he said. “Coming into this game, we just wanted to stick to the basics, our game plan, and I thought we did that pretty well.”
“I didn’t do too much [to prepare for the game against the Sharks],” he added. “I knew I had to play a good game. I wasn’t even close to my best last game. I played pretty bad, so I just wanted to forget about it.”
“Even though I did play one of my worst games as a King, I just wanted to forget about it and [go] out there tonight and I thought I played a pretty good game. It’s good to jump back like that and I look to improve every game.”
YOUNG KINGS GROWING UP?
One thing the players talked about after the game against the Sharks was that there was never a feeling of dread when their 4-0 lead evaporated.
Indeed, they never felt like they had lost control at all.
“Did we want to blow a 4-0 lead? No,” said Brown. “But the feeling on the bench didn’t change. Whether we were up 4-0 or tied 4-4, I think we all felt this was our game to win.”
“The twenty guys are starting to come together and believe that it doesn’t matter who we’re playing or what the situation is,” added Brown. “We have the ability to pull out games.”
Brown pointed to the experience gained from last season as the foundation for that mentality.
“Last year was a huge learning experience in these types of games,” Brown stressed. “These are games that, a year ago, I don’t think we would’ve won, being up 4-0 and blowing it in the third. Once they scored that fourth goal, last year, it would’ve gone the other way.”
“It’s a credit to everyone in here,” Brown continued. “I think that’s a lot of what we learned last year as a team. Tonight was a matter of [moving from] thinking you’re going to win to knowing you’re going to win. Tonight was an example of us taking a huge step. That team is one of the top teams in the league.”
“That’s where we’ve gained on teams such as San Jose, teams like that. We’re starting to gain on the experience level and that’s a huge advantage that they’ve always had.”
Murray sees the growth as well.
“It’s a sign of maturity,” he said. “Everybody continued to talk on the bench about let’s keep going after it, doing the things we’ve been doing so well in the game, get the puck and really stay strong with smart plays.”
“The most important thing we need to take away from this game was the composure to stay with the game plan, to have the confidence to continue to play the way we played most of the game,” he added. “The five-on-five was excellent. There was a lot of hard play, heavy play. You end up staying with it and you get the win. That’s what we have to take away from this game and build on it.”
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