LOS ANGELES — If you’ve been telling your friends, family, or anyone else that you thought the Los Angeles Kings would be ten games above the .500 mark in mid-December, in fourth place in the Western Conference, just two points out of the conference lead, and just three points behind the Washington Capitals for the best record in the National Hockey League as of this writing, rest assured that you will find a big lump of coal in your stocking courtesy of Santa Claus this holiday season.
After all, liars never wind up on Santa’s “good” list.
To be sure, no one in their right mind would have predicted that the Kings would be right up there with the top teams in the NHL in mid-December, let alone when the season began in October. But improved offensive production, decent defense and better-than-passable goaltending have helped lift the Kings into the upper echelon of the NHL…
…for the time being.
Indeed, about four months remain in the regular season and so much could still happen to this still young, still inexperienced team. But focusing on the present, consider the following:
- The Kings have won three straight and are 6-0-1 in their last seven games.
- They are 16-3-3 when scoring first and 14-0-0 when leading after two periods.
- They are 8-1-1 vs. Pacific Division and are 10-1-3 in one-goal games.
- Six of the Kings’ last seven games have been one-goal games and they won all six of those games.
If those numbers jump out at you in a big way, they should. They point to a team that is finding a way to win on most nights.
Secondary scoring has been a big reason for the Kings’ recent success.
“[Center Jarret] Stoll has been great for us,” said center Anze Kopitar. [Wingers Scott] Parse [and Wayne] Simmonds, all those guys—secondary scoring. It’s not like [right wing Dustin] Brown and I are getting on the board very often or [wingers Alexander] Frolov and [Justin] Williams. But we’ve kept winning games and that’s the most important thing, We’re not scoring a whole lot, but sometimes, when we don’t play at our best, we still win hockey games. That’s what good teams do.”
Despite the fact that Kopitar and Brown have slumped badly in recent weeks, the Kings have not missed a beat. A big reason for Kopitar’s scoring woes has been the absence of veteran left wing Ryan Smyth, who has missed the last eleven games with an upper body injury (an educated guess is that he has a rib injury).
But unlike previous years when an injury to a key player would have sent the team plummeting into a downward spiral, this season’s Kings are weathering the storm just fine, earning a 7-3-1 record since Smyth went down with the injury.
“There’s no question we’re not as a good team without [Smyth],” said defenseman Jack Johnson, who has been a big part of the Kings’ recent success with a goal and six assists for seven points in the last six games. “We can’t wait to get him back. But we know without him, everyone has to step it up a little bit.”
“I don’t think we’re surprised at all [about the team’s play without Smyth],” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “I know that certain guys stepped up to the plate when Smyth went out. It’s a huge loss—he’s one of the best players in the league. But we’re playing well without him and when he gets back, we’ll be even better.”
In addition to the secondary scoring, the Kings are playing well enough on defense and their goaltending has been good enough to keep them on a winning track.
“We’ve been playing great hockey of late,” said Johnson. “Our goaltender’s been playing fantastic and we’ve been getting scoring from all of our lines, which helps.”
Although number one goaltender Jonathan Quick has not been as consistent as he was last season, he has, nevertheless, been a big part of the Kings’ winning ways and was their best player in their 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on December 7.
“He was good,” said head coach Terry Murray. “They’re that type of team that puts a lot of pucks to the net, a lot traffic. They’re big and strong on their sticks and, as you saw several times, they were jamming away, trying to bulldoze the puck into the net.”
“Quick is a pretty thick guy and he can hold his own at the top of the crease,” added Murray. “That’s the kind of goaltending you have to have against probably the best team right now in the NHL. They’re playing tremendous.”
The Kings also bolstered their defensive corps with the return of veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who missed nine games with an ankle injury.
“At the end, he was big,” Murray said about Scuderi after the win over the Flames. “He’s got such great range, he skates, his stick is tremendous to re-capture pucks, to poke pucks, and he’s smart, making sure the puck was cleared with strong plays.”
It was those strong plays that helped the Kings defeat the Flames, one of the top teams in the NHL.
“We just kept doing the right thing,” Murray explained. “Our focus was good, our concentration was good on doing things right, right through that last twenty minutes. Hard plays, heavy plays. We were skating, moving the puck and making plays, which I thought we were not doing in the early part of the game. We were more standing still, trying to create something and it just doesn’t work that way.”
“When you get pucks in deep and get in on the forecheck, then you’re doing a good job protecting a lead,” Murray added. “You’re not pulling back and that’s a great attitude.”
That attitude is one of the biggest reasons for the Kings’ success so far this season.
“We’re a pretty good team,” Johnson stressed. “We’ve beaten some good hockey teams. We’re at the point where we know we’re a good team.”
“Everyone in here is a year older, a year smarter,” Johnson added. “We’re definitely a better team and we’ve had some great additions to the team, too. All those are factors in us going into every game, expecting to win. We keep finding a way. We go into every game expecting to win and knowing that we can win, no matter who it is.”
“We have a good team that will compete to the end, regardless of a bad bounce here or a goal there,” said Quick. “We just have to keep the momentum going. We’ve been doing all the little things and we’re scoring timely goals.”
“We have a lot of character,” added Quick. “We’ll battle to the end.”
Confidence and experience are also major factors, something you could not hear in the voices of the young players last season.
This season is very different.
“We’re confident in our dressing room and we’re confident in ourselves,” said Simmonds. “We just decided to look next to us and battle harder than the next guy.”
“I think we have a really good team in here,” Doughty emphasized. “As long as we’re confident and doing the right things that Coach Murray wants us to do, we should be one of the top contenders.”
“I think everyone’s just stepped up to the plate,” Doughty elaborated. “A lot of us only got our first year under our belts last year. We still had a lot of young guys who were pretty inexperienced in the NHL. Even though it’s just that one year, it helps a ton. I know for me, personally, and some other guys on the team, it feels so much more comfortable out there and you play a better game.”
Their attitude and confidence has combined to help them win even when they are not at their best. One example came on December 10 in a 3-2 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Kings were a tired team after a tough, 5-4 overtime victory at San Jose the previous night. But they fought through their fatigue and gutted out a win over a good Coyotes team.
“Last night, I thought we were better than we were tonight [against Phoenix],” said Doughty. “Tonight wasn’t a boring game, but it was kind of slow. We definitely weren’t doing the right things. It’s not that we were lucky to come out with the two points, but we had to work pretty hard to get them.”
“The guys dug in,” said Murray. “It wasn’t always the prettiest, but we found a way to get it done.”
Indeed, the Kings are finding ways to win, regardless of the situation, which is a big step forward.
“Everybody was talking about the next step,” said Kopitar. “Last year, we brought it to OT and it was like, ‘OK, we got the point. We’ll do better next time.’ Now, we want two points and nothing less. That’s the change of our mindset in this locker room, to go out there and be determined to get two points.”
“I don’t know how many times last year when we’d go into the third period with a one-goal lead or a two-goal lead and we blew it,” added Kopitar. “This year, we’re coming in and saying to each other, ‘it’s the same old story. We’ve got a one-goal lead. We’ve got to play smart and we’ve got to play hard with grit and checking.’ At the same time, you still want to be in on the forecheck. You definitely don’t want to back off.”
Murray’s team certainly seems to be figuring it all out.
“It’s all part of the process,” he said. “You’ve got some young guys who’ve gone though a pretty good year last year. They learned the fundamentals of the checking part of the game, which, again, I feel is our foundation. These are games where you’ve got to rely on that part of our game. You’re coming in tired and [the Coyotes] came in yesterday afternoon and they’re sitting there watching our game [at San Jose] on TV.”
“Now you’ve got to emotionally challenge yourself, get up, get ready to play, do the right things and don’t make the game hard on yourself,” he added. “You’ve got to rely on your checking game and that goes back to last year, so maturity is starting to show its wings a little bit.”
Attitude, confidence, experience and maturity…sounds like a solid combination.
“We’re getting better,” said Murray. “If you’re going to win in the National Hockey League, you’ve got to start to believe in yourself and have the right attitude and you have to be able to win close games, one-goal games. That, in itself, tells me that this team is starting to come together, starting to believe in each other, growing. We’re heading in the right direction.”
That his team has jelled so quickly this season has been a surprise, even for Murray.
“We’re coming together a little bit faster than maybe what I anticipated,” said Murray. “I really didn’t have a benchmark as far as the number of games, but I expected us to play good and to be involved and compete in every game and have an opportunity to win every game.”
“[The Kings have exceeded his expectations] a little bit, but not by five or six games,” added Murray. “I expected us to be in pretty good shape at this time.”
“We want to keep the standard high. The bar has been raised and we want to make sure we’re giving ourselves that chance every night.”
Nevertheless, the question remains: Can the Kings continue their winning ways? With about four months left in the regular season, anything is possible…the jury is still out.
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