LOS ANGELES — For the first time since the 2001-02 season, the Los Angeles Kings are looking like a playoff team, so much so that even if they play just .500 hockey over their remaining sixteen games, they are still likely to earn an invitation to the post-season party.
Heading into the Olympic break, the Kings were hot, earning a 12-2-1 record in their last fifteen games prior to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. But coming out of the break, the Kings have been a mixed bag, with a decisive 5-1 win at Dallas on March 2, followed by two extremely poor efforts at Nashville (4-2 loss) on March 4 and against Montreal (4-2 loss) on March 6. The Kings responded with a 6-0 blowout over the feeble Columbus Blue Jackets on March 8, but then they suffered a tough, 3-2 overtime loss at Chicago on March 10.
The big question for the Kings with just sixteen games remaining is: even if they qualify for post-season action, will they go in with momentum or will they slide into the playoffs, putting them at a disadvantage right off the bat?
Based on their play over the last six weeks, there is cause for concern, especially when you consider the fact that even during their 12-2-1 run, the Kings often got off to slow starts and had to struggle to come from behind to win.
“The biggest thing for us has been our starts recently,” Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “We’ve shown some real good character and an ability to come back in games. But a few of us have been talking here. When it comes down to the stretch, you’re not going to be able to come back against good teams.”
“The games [heading down the stretch] are going to be huge for us,” Scuderi emphasized. “We can’t make a habit of terrible starts.”
Slow starts continued to plague the Kings after the Olympic break as well.
“The Montreal Canadiens are a very desperate hockey club,” head coach Terry Murray said after his team’s loss to the Habs on March 6. “They’re on the bubble. They’re tied with three other teams for the final playoff spot in the East. You’ve got to recognize that and know that the intensity is going to be high. They showed it on the first shift and we weren’t ready to match it.”
“The start really wasn’t good and getting scored on during the first shift was definitely not good,” said center Anze Kopitar. “In the second period, we had some power play opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on and they came back and scored a shorthanded goal. It’s frustrating. And then the third period again, on the first shift, we got caught chasing the puck, and there’s the game.”
“i don’t know what it is,” added Kopitar. “We’re not going to try to find excuses for this, but we’ve got to get better, that’s the bottom line.”
Coming out of the Olympics, defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, who represented Canada and the United States, respectively, were riding high on their outstanding play during the Olympic tournament.
Doughty was arguably Canada’s best defenseman, while Johnson was a standout on the USA blue line, seeing ice time in all situations.
Upon their return to the Kings, Murray paired the two, young defensemen, hoping that their strong play during the Olympics would combine well together.
But that pairing lasted just a little more than two games, as Murray shook up his defensive pairs after his team’s slow start against Montreal.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Murray said about the pairing. “On that first goal, we had possession of the puck. We don’t make the right plays, our retrieval of pucks in that first period were not as crisp as what they need to be. The passing and breakouts needed to be better.”
“We felt we needed to make a change right away,” Murray added. “You wait and wait, hoping it’s going to catch fire. Sometimes it’s too late to turn the tables, so you have to do it when you feel the opportunity or that the time is right.”
Goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was Team USA’s third goaltender in the Olympics, did not play at all in Vancouver and the rust showed when he returned to the Kings, especially in terms of his puck handling.
Murray noted that Quick barely got in any practice time during the Olympics, hence the rust.
“I’m disappointed that the U.S. ended up playing five games in the afternoon,” Murray lamented. “For a third goaltender, you miss a lot of quality work. You go through two weeks of being with the Olympic team, you might see a couple dozen pucks in that length of time. That will take a lot away from your game.”
“A goaltender has to see pucks,” Murray elaborated. “They have to work, they have to see pucks every day. This is a little bit of a setback for him, but we’re going to work our way through it. We’re going to get him more work in practice.”
The Kings’ malaise after the Olympic break affected their top line as well.
“I want the Kopitar line to be better, [Dustin] Brown and [Ryan Smyth],” said Murray. They have to be a lot better than what they have been in the last couple of games.”
“That’s just the responsibilities that go along with being a team that’s a playoff team, battling to move forward and move up,” added Murray. “We need those guys to lead the way.”
Despite their mixed bag start to the stretch run after the Olympic break, the Kings are fully aware of the task before them.
“We need to start pushing our playoff mode attitude the right way here,” Murray stressed. “As I said to the players, the playoffs don’t start in the middle of April. They start in March in this league now. We’re a young hockey club and very hungry. I hope that we get right back at it with a lot of energy. If you do that with concentration, you can get things going again.”
“This is a big, big measuring stick time for all players, all teams,” Murray added. “When you get to where we are in the standings, trying to keep pushing up and develop that playoff attitude as we go forward. This is a huge time. This is where we get the right read on people—who’s going to compete, who’s going to get the job done.”
A huge time, indeed.
“It’s playoff time,” said Kopitar. “Everybody’s desperate to get into the playoffs, everybody’s desperate to get the best seed possible. Even the teams that are 14th or 15th are going to try to prove themselves.”
“They’re all going to be hard games,” added Kopitar. “It doesn’t matter if we play Edmonton or Chicago. It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be hard. We just have to get ready for it.”
Awareness of their situation is one thing, but confidence is an entirely different matter. Nevertheless, it seems that the Kings are not lacking in this area, either.
“It’s a great feeling when you’re in a playoff position at this time of the year,” said winger Alexander Frolov. “I’m looking forward to the playoffs. That’s why we play—to make the playoffs and try to win the Stanley Cup.”
“With the group of guys we have here and our system, we’re really capable of it,” added Frolov.
Despite the 2-2-1 record coming out of the Olympic break, one can sense the team’s confidence as soon as you walk into the Kings dressing room. But with their inconsistent play of late, one Kings veteran had a message for his teammates.
“Just because we’re in [the playoff picture] right now doesn’t mean we’re in,” Smyth emphasized. “We’ve got to play to catch the teams in front of us instead of looking at the teams behind us.”
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