LOS ANGELES — After losing three of their first four games without veteran left wing Ryan Smyth, things looked quite bad for the still young Los Angeles Kings and their survival in the Western Conference playoff race.
During that stretch, the Kings allowed twelve goals while scoring just eight. To be sure, their defensive play, which was a major strength last season, had finally been exposed with Smyth out of the lineup.
“We’ve got to tighten up defensively,” defenseman Matt Greene said on November 22. “In this league, you’re not going to win games with the old run-and-gun—you’re not going to win championships. That’s something that needs to be addressed immediately, that commitment to defense and to taking pride in not giving up goals.”
“We just have to play with more confidence and make a commitment to defense,” Greene added. “We have to know our assignments. You have to know what you’re doing on the ice before you get out there. A lot of this game is read and react, but there’s a lot that’s structured, too, just knowing where you need to be. That’s what we have to get back to—knowing your job and doing it.”
Discipline in terms of playing within their system has also contributed to the Kings’ poor defensive coverage.
“Sometimes there are mental lapses out there,” Greene explained. “That’s what we have to eliminate so everyone’s on the same page, so you know where your partner is going to be or where you line mates are going to be. That’s how you play within your structure.”
Much of the talk since Smyth suffered the dreaded “upper body injury” that will keep him out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks has been that if the Kings can play .500 hockey until he returns, they should be in good shape for a playoff run.
But few believed they could do it.
So far, so good.
A contributing factor to their recent success has been improved defensive play, and perhaps the best example of that came in the Kings’ 2-1 shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks on November 28.
“We did a good job with our checking, keeping them to the outside,” said center Jarret Stoll. “They’re going to have their great chances, which they did, but you need good goaltending in this league to win, and we got it. [Jonathan] Quick has been great for us, not just tonight, but lately.”
“To win and to go deep [in the playoffs] in this league, you have to have a good d-zone, good communication out there and good coverage,” added Stoll. “Tonight, we did that. They’re one of the tougher teams to play in the league with your defensive zone coverage, trying to figure out where they’re going. At times, it seems like they have five forwards out there.”
“It’s tough, but we did a good job tonight. Quick was great. When we play good teams, we seem to rise to the challenge and play better defensively. We don’t give them too much respect. We don’t want to give up too many good quality chances. They had a lot of shots tonight and some good chances, too, but not too many that it was getting out of control. They had a lot from the outside.”
The reason for the improved defensive zone play? The Kings went back to the drawing board, so to speak.
“We went back to practice and we worked on it,” said right wing Wayne Simmonds. “We have that home plate attitude as [head coach Terry Murray] says—the five dots that everyone’s come back to. I think we’re reverting to that more. Guys are stopping in the house and then fanning out from there.”
Despite putting in a ragged performance in a sloppy, 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on December 3 at Staples Center, the Kings put in one of their finest defensive efforts of the season in the third period.
“I think we bounced back pretty good after they tied it up,” said defenseman Randy Jones. “We played some strong defense and Quick was there anytime we broke down. There were a few breakdowns and when do that against a good team with good players like they have, they’re going to capitalize. But we got back to our game plan and we played a strong second half.”
The Kings have won their last three games and have outscored their opponents, 12-7 during that stretch. Scoring is on the upswing again, and one reason is that even though star center Anze Kopitar is in the midst of a woeful eleven-game goal scoring drought, others have picked up the slack.
And one source has come out of nowhere, almost literally…center/left wing Brad Richardson.
Richardson, who has been centering the fourth/checking line, has seen his ice time creep higher and higher in recent games and he has even been getting time on left wing with Stoll and Dustin Brown…
On December 1 at Anaheim, Richardson deflected a point shot by defenseman Jack Johnson for the game-winning goal late in the third period, his first goal with the Kings and his first NHL goal since January 30, 2008, when he was with the Colorado Avalanche.
Two days later against the Senators, Richardson scored his second goal in as many games, knocking in a rebound at 3:51 of the second period.
“I was just trying to play a good checking game and try to get in on the forecheck,” said Richardson. “It’s fun to get up and play with [Brown and Stoll]. Hopefully that can continue.”
“Richie’s hot,” said right wing Wayne Simmonds. “He’s been working hard all season long. I’m so happy to see him get rewarded. I knew it was only a matter of time and I think they’re just going to keep coming for him.”
The coaches have certainly noticed his improved play.
“I’m really happy with Richardson,” said Murray. “His game has been progressing throughout the year. In the last dozen games, he’s starting to show that stuff I guess we heard about last year. He’s able to contribute offensively, he’s got good speed, quickness.”
“He’s a good checking player and I’m using him more in that kind of situation,” added Murray. “He’s earning the right to play as many minutes and I’m real happy for him that he’s getting some reward from his effort by scoring goals.”
But the sudden scoring touch begged the question…who was the guy wearing Richardson’s jersey and what did he do with Brad Richardson?
“I’m just trying to work hard and when you keep working hard, usually, good things will happen from that,” Richardson beamed. “Last year was tough with injuries. But this year, I’m getting some consistency and that helps a lot.”
“Someone’s got to step up when the key guys go out,” Richardson added. “But even those guys who aren’t scoring right now, they’re laying it all out there. Look at Brown on the goal I scored [against the Senators]. It was pretty much all because of him. He went to the net hard and there was an empty net for me.”
“It’s going to happen where guys go through droughts like that. The other guys on the third and fourth lines have to pick it up.”
Despite the goal-scoring streak, Richardson remains firmly grounded. Indeed, when asked if it was time for him to ask for time on the top line, Richardson laughed.
“I don’t think we want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said.
But with Richardson making a big enough impact to earn increased ice time and to get some shifts with Brown and Stoll in critical situations, something had to give, and against the Senators, slumping winger Teddy Purcell found himself seated firmly on the bench while Richardson took his place on the line with Brown and Stoll.
“When the score is 3-1 and now it’s 3-3, I’m more concerned about checking properly,” Murray explained following his team’s win over Ottawa. “I know Teddy, when given the opportunity, can score some goals, at least, I’ve been told that, and I needed just to shut things down.”
“We just needed to check,” Murray elaborated. “That was real important to get those pucks turned over and get back on the attack the other way, and that’s one thing Richardson can do.”
If that comment from Murray alarms you, it should. Although it praised Richardson, it was a direct call out for Purcell, warning him that his ice time is on the line if he cannot pick up his game, and not just in terms of goal scoring—it was a clear indictment of Purcell’s play, with and without the puck.
Indeed, after a pretty solid pre-season in which he showed signs of improvement in his play without the puck, Purcell has not shown much this season in terms of the hard, heavy “dots-to-boards” play that Murray stresses.
Although no one expects Purcell to run over and through opposing players or knock them flat, he is expected to at least hold his own in the majority of physical battles, but has rarely done so this season. Add to that the fact that he has not scored since October 9, 2009 (24 games) and has not recorded a point since November 2 (thirteen games), and it is easy to see why Murray has taken a new tact with Purcell.
“It’s just one of those things that’s real frustrating, but, at the same time, when you’re winning, it makes it a bit easier,” said Purcell. “I’m trying to go to the net, trying to get shots. I’ve been getting some chances on the power play, but it’s not going in.”
“It’s a long season,” added Purcell. “I’ve never been though something like this before. But, at the same time, you just have to do the stuff that got you here. I’m trying to work hard to get through it. Hopefully, I’ll get a lucky bounce and get out of it.”
Despite his pointed criticism, Murray does see some light at the end of the tunnel for Purcell.
“He’s playing pretty good,” he said. “He’s handling the puck with a lot of confidence, he’s trying to make plays. He got in here today [against the Senators] on the forecheck, he took some hits to make plays.”
“What he needs to do is have some success around the net right now,” he added. “He’s out on the power play. If it just happened there for him, I think you could see a guy break out again.”
Perhaps a bad sign of things to come is that Purcell does not know what the cause of his scoring drought is.
“I don’t really know,” he lamented. “I can’t pin one thing down to it. It’s not like I’m not trying or not working hard and it’s not like we’re not getting chances. It’s real frustrating.”
“I’ve been trying to do little things away from the puck and moving my feet through the neutral zone,” he stressed. “I feel like I’m getting more involved on the forecheck and the battles, but it’s not going to be the same every night. You’re not going to play your best game every night. It’s just one of those things. You just have to keep working hard and hopefully get a bounce and get through it.”
While he works out his problems, Purcell will continue to see his ice time during key situations go to Richardson.
“He’s been playing great and you have to reward those guys,” said Purcell. “He’s getting bounces and they’re going in for him, so you have to give him credit. I just have to work through it.”
The question now is…how much longer will Purcell get to figure it all out?
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