Over the summer, the “Event Level” corridor and most of the dressing rooms at Staples Center were renovated.
Included in the renovations was the Kings dressing room, which has a much more clean, modern look to it. The renovations include wood-like paneling, new carpet, a four-speaker stereo system, a mini-theatre where the players and coaches can watch and analyze video, and more.
But the newly-remodeled dressing room is not the only reason the air smells different.
Indeed, what you smell when you walk into the Kings dressing room is not just sweaty jerseys and equipment. These days, something quite new, at least to this crop of Kings, is in the air and the aroma is strong and unmistakable.
That smell is the powerful scent of confidence exuding from the pores of each and every Kings player, something they have had since the first game of the season, despite playing their worst game in recent memory in a 6-3 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on October 3 at Staples Center.
Since that time, the Kings have earned a 10-3-2 record and through games played on November 7, 2009, the Kings find themselves in second place in the Pacific Division, just two points behind the San Jose Sharks. They are also fourth in the Western Conference, four points behind the conference-leading Colorado Avalanche, and they own the fourth-best record in the thirty-team National Hockey League, with the Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Avalanche ahead of them.
Talk about a dramatic improvement from this time last season… the Kings were a measly 7-7-2 after sixteen games in 2008-09 and did not earn their tenth win until game 22 on November 29, a 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Although their debacle against Phoenix to open the season and their three-game losing streak on their first road trip back in October (losses to the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets), the Kings have been winning and often doing it in convincing fashion.
Although the Kings have faced the Sharks twice already this season with mixed results (the Kings are 1-0-1 so far this season against the Sharks), November 5 was circled on a lot calendars because the Kings would face their biggest test.
That was the night superstar center Sidney Crosby would lead the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins into town to face the still-considered-to-be upstart Kings.
Going into the game, much of the buzz surrounding the highly-anticipated contest was that it would be a measuring stick game for the Kings, who would get to see if they can finally stack up favorably to the best team in the NHL.
When it was all over, not only did the Kings win, but they passed the test with flying colors in a stunning 5-2 victory. But it was not just that the Kings won the game that earned them high marks.
Indeed, this is a team that went into the game truly believing that they can beat anyone and that feeling is even stronger now.
“There’s a different attitude, a different mindset, a different kind of quiet confidence about this group,” said center Jarret Stoll, who scored the game-winning goal and added an assist. “You add some veteran guys and that help is huge.”
Veteran experience has made an impact this season, with the most important veteran addition to this young Kings team being right wing Ryan Smyth, who has been a major factor in center Anze Kopitar’s explosion into the ranks of the elite centers in the league this season.
“Experience is a big thing is this league,” Stoll explained. “When you have it, you rely on it. You respect the years these guys have put into this league and you listen to them. That’s helped this club.”
Kopitar has started the season smoking hot, already scoring thirteen goals and adding thirteen assists for 26 points in sixteen games, leading the NHL in scoring as of this writing. He added to his point total against the Pens with two goals while he helped keep his superstar counterpart, Crosby, off the scoresheet.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen him [play],” said right wing Dustin Brown, who scored a goal and contributed an assist in the game. “It’s pretty fun to watch, I’ll tell you that much. He’s on fire.”
“[Being the NHL’s scoring leader is] really something,” Kopitar beamed. “But the bottom line is I’m just happy the team is winning. If I’m putting up points, it’s more satisfying for me. It’s a confidence booster and hopefully, we’ll just keep it going.”
Kopitar is the Kings’ best example of the confidence that seems to be coursing through the veins of all the players. With Smyth creating more room for Kopitar to maneuver, along with Kopitar’s added strength, speed and improved conditioning, one gets the feeling that he is going to score virtually every time he gets the puck and turns on the jets as he carries the puck up ice and into the attacking zone with speed.
Further, Kopitar is now more effective in the neutral zone, in the defensive zone and in physical battles along the boards and in the corners because of his added strength, speed and conditioning.
In short, he has become a complete player and if he can maintain this level of play, he will become the true, elite number one center the Kings have lacked since Wayne Gretzky.
And that is exactly what the Kings have been looking for from Kopitar.
“We’re looking for that line to be an elite line in the game,” said head coach Terry Murray. “When you have that kind of expectation put on you by the coaching staff and as an organization, there is a need to respond and I’m seeing a more consistent kind of effort that shows he wants to be that kind of player.”
“Now that he’s up there as the top scorer in the National Hockey League, there’s that kind of internal pressure and response from him also,” added Murray. “That’s what drives players to the next level and that’s where you become a great player, whenever you have those internal instincts takeover and it looks like, at times, they are.”
With Kopitar and his line mates, Smyth and right wing Justin Williams, already scoring twenty goals with 28 assists for 48 points in eleven games together this season, the rest of the team is drawing strength and greater confidence from their hot start to the season, so much so that there is no longer any panic or fear when they are trailing entering the third period.
On this night, the Kings trailed the mighty Pens after two periods, 2-1, even though the Kings had put in a stronger performance.
It was exactly the kind of game where Kings teams of the past would get down on themselves or lose faith and would let all that get to them in the third period. They would lose their composure, not to mention, the game.
That has happened time after time after time throughout most of the Kings’ 42 years of existence. But that would not be the case against the Pens, as the Kings put in what may have been their most dominating third period since the Gretzky Era, scoring four unanswered goals.
“We talked a couple of times in the game—first and second period intermissions—about needing more of a sustained kind of an attitude,” Murray noted. “There were shifts when we were very good. We made the right decisions getting [the puck] in, we were able to cycle the puck. But then we come back out two or three shifts later and we’re trying to get a little cute, a little fancy, trying to do something special crossing the blue line.”
“I thought, in the third period, that we finally got all of our people on board and every line was doing the right stuff,” Murray added.
“We were calm,” Stoll stressed. “We knew we were down one. We were fine, we just had to play a little bit better, get more pucks in deep and get more shots. I think right from the third period when that started, you could tell that we had some momentum. We were building and building and I think it was just a matter of time before we got that goal to tie it up. Nobody was uptight, nobody was too nervous in the third. We just kept pushing.”
“There’s been so many examples already this year that when we do that and think that way, we get that go-ahead goal and get the win,” Stoll elaborated. “It’s very encouraging to be able to do that in the third. A lot of teams can’t do that. Hopefully, we can continue to do that and better yet, be up in the third as opposed to being down.”
“Going into the third period down one, we managed to score four goals,” said Kopitar. “We’re were doing some really good stuff in the second period. We outshot them by quite a lot. That just shows the character—sticking with it and not giving up. That’s what this team is made of.”
“Their goalie [Marc-Andre Fleury] was good throughout the first two periods,” added Kopitar. But we just kept pouring it on, getting shots on net and we knew—we were hoping more than we knew—that he was going to fold and we managed to score four goals. It was a big two points for us.”
A big reason for their increased confidence is something that Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi has been working to build into his team.
“I think it’s a mixture of character and never letting up,” said Brown. “I think it’s a big positive for us, knowing that we can be down going into the third—I think we changed our game for the better. We got a lot of pucks deep, we cycled pucks. The two penalties we drew were because we got the puck deep.”
“It’s a big momentum boost for everyone on this team,” added Brown. “You don’t want to play from behind too often, but it’s good to know we can come out and play that way when need to.”
“It was a great game for us,” said Kopitar. “Being down, we still outshot them by ten or more. That just shows our character. We didn’t quit. We battled hard all the time. We were down one goal, but going into the third, we knew we had nothing to lose and we just had to keep pouring it on and stay within the system and structure, and we managed to score some goals.”
Back to that measuring stick question again…was this game one in which the Kings could see where they stacked up against the best in the league?
Depends on who you ask.
“I’m going to say no,” said Murray. “They’re a premier team, they’re the Stanley Cup Champions and you need your top players to respond and to play well against the premier teams in the game. But I’d like to think that we respect every other team and give our best effort.”
“I’m well aware of Pittsburgh, added Murray. “I’ve seen them a lot coming from the East myself. They’ve got [Sergei] Gonchar out, [Evgeni] Malkin, one of the premier players in the game. [Maxime] Talbot’s out, [Tyler] Kennedy’s out. They’ve got a bunch of injuries. But you still have to play the game and I’m sure they’re not going to throw that out as a reason why, either. They came to play and so did we. I really liked what we did in the third period.”
“They’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions and they’re 7-0 on the road [going into the game],” said Brown. “It was a big challenge. We were going into this game as if it was just another game. But, in retrospect, they have a pretty good team. For us to come out and win the way we did is a huge momentum boost for us.”
“You don’t go into a game looking at it like that, but after, you sit there, dissect the game and see where you measure up,” added Brown. “It was a big challenge. We were going into this game as if it was just another game. But, in retrospect, they have a pretty good team. For us to come out and win the way we did is a huge momentum boost for us.”
Even though the Kings are flying high after handing the Pens a resounding defeat, they seem to be keeping everything in the proper perspective.
“I feel great about it,” said Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. “It’s a big accomplishment. They were 7-0 on the road going into this game, so it wasn’t an easy feat. But at the same time, you have to take it with a grain of salt. It’s just one game out of 82.”
“We’ll take one game at a time,” said Kopitar. “It’s a long season. There are still sixty-plus games left. We’ll see how good we are at the end of 82 games. But so far, so good.”
Prior to the game, superstar Crosby talked about that upstart team in the other dressing room and what they need to do to become a Stanley Cup contender.
“You have to probably just beat some good hockey teams,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Some teams that, maybe in the past, might go into the game you just want to find a way to survive and maybe squeeze a win out. I’m sure that’s probably creeping into [the Kings’] minds.”
“Beating good hockey teams builds confidence,” Crosby added.
Although they still have a long way to go and have a lot of hard work ahead of them, the Kings can say, for a couple of days, anyway…
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