LA Kings Must Avoid Letdown With Key Players Returning

EL SEGUNDO, CA — With Christmas 2009 now upon us, the Los Angeles Kings are all away from the rink, spending time with family and friends, sharing the spirit of the season.

While those of us who celebrate the holiday season by exchanging gifts do so with loved ones and friends, the Kings received the gift they wanted most at this point in the 2009-10 season, the return of several key players from injury, including veteran left wing Ryan Smyth, right wing Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Jack Johnson.

Johnson missed just one game after taking a slap shot by Edmonton Oilers defenseman Sheldon Souray off his foot, so the Kings did not miss him for long. But the return of Simmonds (out for four games) and Smyth (missed fifteen games) has been something the Kings have been waiting for with the proverbial bated breath.

“This is a good time for us,” said center Anze Kopitar, who will have Smyth back on left wing on his line with right with Justin Williams when the Kings return to action at Phoenix on December 26.

A big reason Kopitar was smiling all week in practice was because with Smyth’s presence in front of the opposition’s net, he was scoring goals and racking up points at a torrid pace. But without him, Kopitar scored just two goals.

“We have some banged up bodies from the last little while,” Kopitar noted. “Everybody’s going to get healthy and we’re going to come back strong.”

To be sure, there were a lot of smiles and excitement on the ice and in the Kings dressing room during three days of practice this week, much of it the result of the team getting healthier and the expectations among the players that their team just got a huge shot in the arm that should strengthen them and make things easier down the road.

But there is a potential pitfall here, as the Kings have to worry about the all too common let down after a team gets key players back from injury.

“It is a bit of a concern,” said head coach Terry Murray. “I’ve seen that many, many times in the past where [players think], ‘Joe is back now and he can take over where I might be able to back off now.’”

“I’ve always worried about that kind of reaction to good players coming back into the lineup,” added Murray.

Although Murray has every right to be concerned, his players do not seem to be worried. Indeed, Smyth and Kopitar believe the team will continue to be focused on the task at hand.

“I believe, as a group, a little adversity—every team fights through that,” said Smyth. “But I believe in this locker room. It’s a sense of will and a sense of urgency to win. The organization hasn’t been in the playoffs for a long time and I think everyone knows that, so I don’t foresee that. I hope not.”

“I don’t think that’s the case with our team,” said Kopitar. “If you want to play a lot of this team, you have to perform every night. I think everybody knows their role and everyone wants to prove themselves, each and every game.”

“With Ryan coming back, maybe one of the guys will lose the spot they had with Ryan gone,” added Kopitar. “I think he’s going to work extra hard to get that spot back [and win someone else’s spot in the lineup]. It’s healthy competition within the team to push each other to a higher level.”

The Kings have earned a 9-3-1 record since November 25, and they wound up with a 9-5-1 record without Smyth. Just one season ago, such a feat would have been impossible, showing just how much the Kings have improved.

“From a statistical standpoint, we have eight guys with twenty or more points,” right wing and team captain Dustin Brown pointed out. “When Smyth went down, when Simmonds went down, other guys elevated their game.”

“Injuries are going to happen,” added Brown. “If you want to be successful, you need guys to step up. You need your best players to be your best players, but we’ve also gotten secondary scoring and [Jonathan] Quick has been strong in goal. We have a mix of everyone contributing.”

“It shows that we have a lot of players who can do the job,” said center Michal Handzus. “In the first 15-20 games, we got a lot of scoring from the first line. But now we can see that even when they don’t score as much as they did in the [earlier] games, we still won the games—other guys were scoring.”

“Now we know everyone can score,” added Handzus. “I think it’s a big thing for our whole team’s confidence to know that every line can play on both ends of the ice and can play a lot of minutes or less minutes. It’s really good for the team that we can balance it out. We can roll over four lines and still be really effective.”

With the Kings getting strong goaltending from Quick, secondary scoring coming through and with bigger and better things expected with the Smyth-Kopitar-Williams line back in business, the Kings are well-positioned, not just to make a strong playoff push, but also to compete for one of the top seeds in the Western Conference.

But the Kings have not accomplished anything yet and even though some key players are returning to the lineup, that does not mean things will get easier.

“You want to be as healthy as possible coming out of the Christmas break,” Brown stressed. “With the Olympic break, there’s a lot of games left to be played. As well as we’ve played this year, the fact of the matter is that we’re not even halfway through the year yet. There’s a lot of hockey to be played.”

“I remember my first year,” Brown added. “We were in first place at Christmas time, too, and we ended up finishing eleventh or tenth. That’s the most important thing—that we stay aware of the situation. There’s a lot of hockey left.”

“They are going to be hard, tough games,” said Handzus. “We have to put in a lot of hard work, it doesn’t matter who is in the lineup. Even if we get guys back, we have to work hard and really play our game. That’s a big challenge for us to not just take it easier just because guys are coming back.”

“They’re really good players and they’re going to help us in the long run,” added Handzus. “But we still have to play the games. Good teams can go through injuries and still win the games and we’ve done that. Right now, the big challenge for us is not to think that it’s going to be easier when someone comes back. It’s going to be even harder, especially in the second half of the season.”

The Kings are a more cohesive unit this season, on the ice and off, and that may help them avoid any letdown.

“The first part is what we’ve done as a team over the last year, year and a half, coming together,” Brown explained. “[This past] summer was a big part of that. We’re more of a team than we ever were before and when you get results and you’re winning, it’s more fun to come to the rink and be around your teammates.”

“It’s a snowball effect,” Brown elaborated. “We have good chemistry, everyone fits in well, and that’s not easy to do when you have 25 guys.”

“I thought we got together last year pretty good,” Handzus noted. “We’re a good group of guys. We’ve been together a year longer now so it’s even better. It’s a great locker room, one of the best I’ve been in. There’s trust on the ice, too. Everybody’s working for each other and that’s a key for the team.”

Although his players believe that they will come out of their current eight-day hiatus strong and on task when they return to action on December 26 at Phoenix, Murray remains concerned.

“We’ll stay on top of [the potential for a letdown],” he emphasized. “I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to make sure that we, as a coaching staff, are aware that this can creep into your game.”

“You have to earn the right to get into the playoffs and that demands your best every night,” he added. “I think we’re mature enough now, after last year, and almost at the halfway point here, that is pretty well understood in the locker room.”

“It takes the twenty players who are in the lineup that night to make sure they’re playing their best. That’ll be a reminder from us and, hopefully, some of the leadership guys are doing the same.”

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One Response to LA Kings Must Avoid Letdown With Key Players Returning

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