Top Line Helps LA Kings Keep Hope Alive

LOS ANGELES — After getting off to a hot 4-1-0 start to the still very young 2009-10 National Hockey League season, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves in the midst a three-game losing streak as they head to Dallas on October 19, the final game of their six-game road swing.

Indeed, after winning four straight games for the first time since October, 2007, the Kings have hit the skids during their longest road trip of the season, and many Kings fans have already begun to jump ship, writing the Kings off for the season.

Given the team’s woeful history of mediocrity and with the Kings having failed to qualify for the playoffs since the 2001-02 season, fans have earned the right to be skeptical.

Nevertheless, the 2009-10 Kings are still a better team on paper than they have been at any time in the past three seasons and with the team only eight games into the season, is the growing skepticism warranted?

If you focus on their woes in the face-off circle, inconsistent goaltending from both Erik Ersberg and Jonathan Quick and the fact that the first line of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams has cooled off a bit from their smoking hot start, the answer is yes, it is time to be skeptical. At the very least, these are causes for concern.

But the Kings’ top line is still light years ahead of anything their top forward lines accomplished last season and the team is tied for fifth in the league in scoring as of this writing. Oh…there’s also that little thing about them having played just eight of their 82 games.

Under the circumstances, while the early naysayers may be proven correct down the road and although there are reasons to be concerned, it is still way too early to write the Kings off for the season.

One of the biggest factors, assuming the Kings shore up their weaknesses, is the production of their first line, as Kopitar, Smyth and Williams came out of the gate on fire, combining for ten goals and fifteen assists for 25 points in the team’s first five games, averaging five points per game.

But during the current three-game slide, the top line has generated just two goals and four assists for six points, averaging just two points per game.

To be sure, the top line has cooled off considerably, and Williams being one of eight players who were ill going into their game at Columbus on October 17 (a 4-1 loss) did not help matters.

Even though the top line has re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, they could easily rise again.

“I’m just glad that things are going the way they are,” said Kopitar. “Everything seems to be in place right now. We’ve been building the chemistry and it’s really good to see it come through.”

“You’ve got three skilled guys, but you’ve also have three guys who work hard, and you have to put the work before the skill if anything’s going to come out of it,” said Williams. “If we keep getting our chances, game in and game out, then we should be successful together.”

Kopitar is off to fast start, leading the Kings in scoring with four goals and eight assists for twelve points in the eight games.

Compared to last season, Kopitar is on a tear, as his fourth goal was not scored until November 25, 2008, and it took him fourteen games to tally twelve points.

“It’s great to see that when [Kopitar] has the puck, he’s trying to make something happen,” said head coach Terry Murray. “He’s attacking and looking to make plays, looking to shoot the puck. That’s the sign of a young guy who’s doing the right stuff and, hopefully, he continues to grow and build on that.”

“The talent, the patience with the puck…I look at Kopitar, how strong he is down low,” Smyth noted. “You don’t realize it until you play with him. He doesn’t just throw the puck away. He makes plays.”

“Kopitar understands the game tremendously and his work ethic on a nightly basis is excellent,” Smyth noted. “It’s just awesome to play with [him] right now and we want to continue what we’ve got going on. We know it’s going to be a tough task all year, but we’re playing real hard right now.”

A big reason Kopitar has gotten off to a fast start is that he is stronger and faster this season, thanks to his off-season strength and conditioning work. This has translated to him being far more effective along the boards and in the corners on loose pucks. It has also helped him generate speed through the neutral zone, backing defensemen off their blue line and creating room for him and his linemates to create in the offensive zone.

“I guess I prepared for the season a little better and I’m playing the hockey that I learned awhile ago and that I’ve showed that I can play,” Kopitar explained. “Now, everything’s clicking. Hopefully, we won’t get into a slump. Maybe we’re not going to be on fire every night, but you have to do the right things. I think the points and the results are going to come.”

“I worked out hard,” Kopitar stressed. “I do feel good on the ice. I feel strong and pretty fast, too. It’s working for me. Getting older, you get stronger and you get to know your body a little better, you know what to do a little more and you learn from your mistakes and weaknesses and you try to improve on that. I think I did it pretty good this summer.”

Despite the fact that he is just 23 years old, Kopitar is now in his fourth NHL season and is building the confidence that comes with added experience.

“Maybe I feel a little more confident than I did last year,” he said. “Scoring in the first game helps, picking up a couple of points. From there, you just go on and play and gain more confidence. Playing with Smyth and Williams is a great thing. They’ve been in the league for awhile and they know what’s going on. I’m really enjoying my time on the ice right now.”

Smyth, who has scored five goals and has tallied five assists for ten points, has added veteran experience and leadership that was missing from the lineup last season.

“I think it’s his experience and his veteran presence in the locker room,” said Kopitar. “He calms everybody down, including me. When he speaks up, everybody listens.”

“Maybe that’s what we were lacking last year,” added Kopitar. “We didn’t have a lot of old guys who’ve been in the league for years. It’s helping a lot. The young guys are learning from him. It’s been nothing but helpful.”

“I think he gives us the element of comfort and leadership and knowing that a veteran guy is out there, he’s going to make the right play and he’s going to lead by example is something the [young] core of this team needs. That’s what we’re trying to build here,” Williams explained.

“I know management is trying to build with character guys and Ryan is one of those guys who is going to take a hit to make a play or block a shot with his face if he has to, and that [trickles] all the way down,” Williams elaborated. “We all need to be professionals and play every game like it’s our last.”

The coaching staff has taken note of Smyth’s impact on the team as well,

“He’s a quality guy, a quality veteran,” said Murray. “On the ice, it’s present every day. He’s a player who can play in all situations. He really has an effect on our hockey club.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game that Smyth has had an impact on has been showing his young teammates the virtues of getting to the front of the net, as their net presence and willingness to shoot the puck has been like nothing seen from the Kings in recent memory.

“We’re getting pucks to the net, we’re having better presence at the net,” Murray noted. “It takes a couple of veteran guys like Ryan Smyth to set that example. You can see some of the stuff he brings. Younger guys are looking and watching and doing the same.”

“I think the big thing is that coach has emphasized the shot mentality and the net presence, and that goes with my game a little bit,” said Smyth. “I don’t want to change my game, but the puck has got to end up towards the net area. Guys are getting it through and we’re getting rewarded.”

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