LOS ANGELES — With thirteen games remaining in their 2009-10 regular season, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves headed in the wrong direction at the worst possible time.
The reason? Poor starts and shoddy, lazy play have been glaring problems for the Kings, who are just 3-4-1 since the Olympic break.
But even before that, when the Kings set a record with a nine-game winning streak from January 21 through February 6, 2010, the Kings got off to slow starts in most of those contests and had to struggle for come-from-behind wins.
Indeed, slow starts have been a problem throughout the season.
“We just need to get our game in order,” said head coach Terry Murray. “We need to come for sixty minutes and know the importance of every play, every pass, every face-off.”
“Getting through the middle of the ice to get your game established in the early part is critical and that seems to be something we’re not buying into throughout this year,” added Murray. “We have to figure that part out.”
69 games into the season, one would think they would have that part figured out by now. Nevertheless, the evidence, or, perhaps more appropriately, the carnage left behind, stands out after embarrassing efforts against the Montreal Canadiens, the Chicago Blackhawks and two at the hands of the Nashville Predators.
The poor efforts and lazy play have resulted in the Kings losing far too many loose puck battles, not getting traffic and pucks to the front of the net, poor puck support through the neutral zone and sub-par defensive zone play.
“Especially at a critical time of the year, we were up against a team that’s right behind us, it’s unacceptable how we started the game,” said right wing Dustin Brown following his team’s 3-2 loss to the Predators on March 14. “It’s unacceptable to say the least.”
“We wish we would’ve checked a little better in the first ten minutes and maybe managed the puck through the middle of the ice to get our game going in the offensive zone,” said Murray said after the loss to the Predators on March 14. “I thought we came back and played pretty well. We got the lead and had some good things going in the third period on the forecheck, we were pressuring better with five players, we had better gaps through the middle of the ice. It was close to getting that third goal and maybe put the game out of reach for them.”
But that off-and-on play is exactly what has gotten the Kings in trouble.
“It’s not right, the way we started, the way we played throughout the game,” said center Anze Kopitar. “We’re hot and cold all the time. For us to be successful, we have to be consistent.”
The lack of intensity has resulted in individual players trying to do too much or trying to create something out of nothing in an attempt to fire up the team. But more often than not, that backfires.
“It’s the importance of getting the puck in to get your game going,” Murray explained. “That’s where I’m at. It’s too tempting to try to dangle, to make one extra play, to hold on and try to beat a defenseman or do something other than the mentality that what we need.”
“It’s a concern,” Murray elaborated. “We’ve been very good at it for the first sixty games “We were very good at it. Puck pursuit and puck possession. We have to re-capture that.”
“It’s a matter of us taking a look in the mirror individually and collectively,” Brown stressed. “We all know we have a good team in here and we’ve shown that this year. We can’t sit here and say ‘we need to be more intense.’ We need to go out there and do it. That’s a matter of us taking responsibility in here.”
After their barely-there effort against Chicago on March 18, the Kings’ captain did exactly that.
“In the end, it’s my fault,” said Brown. “I turned the puck over twice on one shift and it ended up in a goal. That set the tone for the rest of the game. They got that goal and we let down. We were getting beaten to pucks all over.”
“Ultimately, everyone can be better in here,” added Brown. “But if I make a smarter or better play, we’re going into the third period, 0-0. We didn’t play out best in the second, but maybe we would’ve had that jump in the third.”
Reading between the lines, Brown was trying to set an example for his teammates by accepting responsibility and being accountable. Although it remains to be seen if that will have the desired impact, at the very least, some of his teammates appear to have gotten the message.
“We have to start recognizing that teams are closing on us,” said Kopitar. “If no one is working hard enough or having that passion you need to have to work hard and have the energy, everything pretty much goes wrong. We have to correct that and get going again.”
Their first attempt to fix their problems came in practice on March 19.
“We know we’ve got to execute in the hard areas and that’s getting the pucks out at the lines and getting pucks in at the lines,” left wing Ryan Smyth said after the loss to Chicago on March 18. “We’ve got to outwork the other team and outwork the guy you’re faced off against.”
Goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has not been nearly as sharp since the Olympic break began, shared similar thoughts.
“We need to re-focus,” he said. “Starting from me, right on out, we need to bear down and come together as a team. It starts with practice tomorrow. We need to get a good practice under our belt and carry it over against the [New York] Islanders on Saturday.”
The bottom line for the Kings is that they need to get that attitude back, that swagger that has been missing since before the Olympic break.
“It’s in our heads,” Kopitar said after his team’s loss to the Predators on March 14. “It’s between the ears. We have to come here with the mindset that we’re going to start from the first puck drop. It’s not enough to play fifteen minutes in this league, and we saw that today. The start was bad and it just carried over. We got it going a little bit, but it’s not enough.”
“There’s a lot of things we need to address, and attitude may be the biggest one,” said Murray. “It’s the young team mentality, unfortunately. That’s what it is. I’ve seen that over the years.”
No question, the Kings are a young team. But most of their young players will soon have enough experience where that will be little more than a lame excuse.
Indeed, the Kings need to do some serious growing up and fast or they will fall out of playoff contention—just four points separate them from the eighth-place Detroit Red Wings and the ninth-place Calgary Flames heading into action on March 20.
“It’s crunch time,” Kopitar stressed. “We have to keep climbing the standings, getting points. Everything is so important. Every play matters.”
“What you don’t like to see is that the stretch is happening right now,” said Murray. “This is a time when you’ve got to play well, win some games and solidify a position. You’re trying to move up in the standings and get into the playoffs. You can’t let these opportunities slide by.”
“This is a big measuring stick time for all players, all teams,” added Murray. “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.”
Despite their poor play, the Kings appear to be focused on what lies ahead, not on their past.
“It’s a matter of hitting the reset button on this and coming back to work,” said Brown. “We need to be a lot better in practice tomorrow and get back to basics.”
“We can’t think about the slide we’ve been on or how we’ve been playing lately,” added Brown. “It’s all about playing the next game, especially with how tight the standings are, where we’re at in the standings. At this time of year, you can’t dwell on how you’ve been playing. You have to focus on how you have to play.”
For their sake, the Kings must find their focus again and right away. If they fail to do so, they will find themselves in that all-too-familiar situation…embarking on yet another an early summer vacation and turning what looked like a turnaround season into an abject failure.
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