LOS ANGELES — Over the vast majority of their history, the Los Angeles Kings have traditionally played poorly in December, so often that many fans resign themselves to the inevitable “December Swoon.”
But this year’s Kings have been a big surprise. To be sure, they have done anything but swoon as their 7-2-1 record for this month (going into action on December 19), indicates. With four games left to play this month, the Kings are guaranteed to have a winning record in December, a rather shocking fact for many Kings fans.
Even more impressive, the Kings have earned a 9-5-1 record since veteran left wing Ryan Smyth went down with what is believed to be a rib injury on November 16. Compare that to recent seasons past when the loss of a key player would have sent them free-falling in the standings, it is rather apparent that there is something very different about the 2009-10 Kings.
“We’re doing all the little things and getting timely goals,” said goaltender Jonathan Quick.
“You could look at as some nights, we seem to be doing it with smoke and mirrors and other nights, it seems like it’s the mark of a good team, or a team that’s maturing and getting better—you don’t have to bring your best effort every night,” said defenseman Sean O’Donnell. “Just find a way to win. We’re starting to get confidence and learn to win the games that aren’t pretty. We’re starting to get on a nice little roll here.”
“Even though our penalty-killing hasn’t been great, when we’ve had to kill one, we’ve killed it,” added O’Donnell. “When Quick has had to make the save, he’s made the save.”
You can add experience and confidence to the winning formula as well.
“It’s a sign of maturity, a sign of more experience, a better team and everything coming together,” said center Jarret Stoll. “It’s guys coming into their own, being good players, having more experience, realizing that they can play a bigger role on this team and running with it. Confidence can take you a long, long way if you continue to be consistent and make plays.”
“It’s a long year,” added Stoll. “Things are going well now but we have to continue to get points and be as consistent as possible because everybody’s so good.”
And there’s the rub…consistency, something that has been a problem for the Kings in recent weeks, as they have put in some spotty efforts in most games, but won anyway on the strength of Quick’s outstanding play in goal.
Of course, no one should expect any team or any player to be firing on all cylinders in every game. After all, no one is perfect.
“There’s not going to be months and months where everybody’s contributing,” Stoll stressed. “That’s just not going to happen. Some guys aren’t right now, but they’re still playing well, still doing some really good things. The main thing is we’re winning games, we’re getting points.”
But how long can the Kings continue on their current pace without cleaning up their defensive zone coverage and improving their penalty-killing?
The answer: not long enough, as solid defense and goaltending have proven to be the hallmarks of successful teams. But to their credit, the Kings are fully aware that they are playing with fire.
“It’ll come back to bite you if you don’t pick it up and realize that you’re not going to win every night not playing your best hockey,” said right wing Justin Williams. “We’ve grown as a team here these few months.”
“We’ve found ways to win games, but we can’t get too cocky, too ahead of ourselves,” added Williams. “Yeah, we’re stringing wins together here, but there are going to be stretches where it’s not going to go well, too. We need to find ways to better ourselves.”
“I think the one thing that’s huge is when good teams that aren’t playing well they are still picking up points,” said center Michal Handzus. “But if it drags on too long, that’s not a good thing. We’re aware that we’re not playing as well as we want. It’s great that we’re getting the wins, but we have to keep working on our game and get better because if [this keeps up] longer, we’re going to get some losses and it could get ugly.”
“We just have to focus on our game right now and get better,” added Handzus. “We haven’t played well lately. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Indeed, the Kings know that they are far from unbeatable.
“The thing is, we know we’re not playing our best right now and we’re just getting great saves from Jonathan Quick and we’re getting timely goals,” O’Donnell noted. “It’s not like we’re riding high and going, ‘no one can beat us, we’re just invincible right now.’”
“We know there are parts of our game that we need to pick up, so there’s things we’re working on every day,” O’Donnell added. “We still think we can play better and we still think we can play a more complete game.”
“We don’t have our heads in the clouds thinking that we’re playing amazing and that everything’s going to be fine, so we’ll get it straightened out.”
Now in the midst of an unusual eight-day break in their schedule, the Kings are home for the holiday season, resting up over the weekend before beginning a three-day mini-camp of sorts, while Stoll, along with defensemen Jack Johnson and Randy Jones, recover from injuries suffered on the Kings’ recent Canadian road trip.
With Smyth activated from injured reserve on December 18, the Kings know that they are capable of bigger and better things.
“We still have a lot more to give and that’s the positive thing,” Williams explained. “We’re not playing our best hockey, but we’re winning games. That bodes well for the future.”
“We’re where we want to be, but we feel we haven’t reached our potential yet,” Williams elaborated. “That’s our job, to go out and find that and really dominate teams. We’re playing decent, but we’re not totally dominating, which I know we can. Throughout the season, we’ve shown that we’re an elite team in the conference, a team that deserves respect. But the good thing is that I feel there’s a lot more in here. We need to harness that and find it.”
The Kings are 22-12-3 on the season. They are tied in points for the Pacific Division lead with the San Jose Sharks and are just two points away from having the best record in the NHL, through games played on December 18.
The Kings’ accomplishments this season indicate that they are a good team and deserve respect. But an elite team? Not yet.
In other words, the Kings still have a long way to go.
“It’s a work in progress,” defenseman Matt Greene said following his team’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on December 12 at Staples Center. “There are some good things going on in that we’re getting the two points. But there are still a lot of things to work on.”
“If you talk to anyone in this room, I don’t think anyone would say they played their ‘A’ game tonight, except for Quick,” Greene added. “I think he kept us in it. There’s still a lot of things we have to do [in terms of our system], with our special teams and individually. We have a long way to go.”
Greene emphasized that the Kings really haven’t accomplished anything yet.
“Nobody in this room sees this as a finish line and it’s up to the leaders in this room to make sure that doesn’t happen, either,” he stressed. “Our goal isn’t to be competitive halfway through the year. Our goal is to be in the playoffs and to be in a good position going into the playoffs.”
“We’ve got to tighten up a lot of things in our game and make sure it happens sooner rather than later.”
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.