LOS ANGELES — Given that the Los Angeles Kings are just 5-6-2 since the Olympic break and have put in mostly poor efforts since that time, one can imagine what an advertisement in the Lost and Found section of the local newspapers might look like:
LOST: Intensity, effort, urgency, enthusiasm. If found, please contact the Los Angeles Kings immediately.
Although their malaise began before the Olympic break, the two-week hiatus killed any momentum the Kings had going into the stretch drive for the playoffs.
“I think it was the break,” head coach Terry Murray lamented. “To me, it’s mental. This is an attitude game at this time of the year. Twenty percent talent, eighty percent attitude, and I think our attitude slipped over the break.”
Murray added that his team is not the only one suffering from this affliction.
“It’s around the league, it’s not just the LA Kings,” he said. “You’re seeing some teams taking a step back from where they were pre-Olympics. As a result, you get into these critical games and you don’t know how to shut’em down.”
Of course, some teams have been hit harder than others by the lag after the Olympics. Nevertheless, the Kings are right up there with those hit the hardest, and, to make matters worse, goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has been the Kings’ best player in many games this season, has been mostly mediocre since the break.
Although Quick represented the United States during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, he was their third goaltender and got no quality practice time in before jumping right back into the fray with the Kings.
In short, he was rusty upon his return to National Hockey League action and has not regained top form, despite what his 2.38 goals-against average and .910 save percentage since the Kings returned to action would seem to indicate. Indeed, what is more revealing is that Quick has had five games since the break in which his save percentage dipped well under the .900 mark.
But just as significant, if not more so, has been the lack of intensity and enthusiasm from the skaters in front of him.
As stated earlier, the Kings have put in mostly poor, uninspired efforts since the Olympic break. In each of those games, the Kings were consistently beaten to loose pucks, either in footraces or in physical battles along the boards and in the corners. They have also done little in front of either net, which has translated to few quality scoring chances for and way too many against.
“All around, a good team win,” veteran left wing Ryan Smyth noted after the Kings beat the Avs. “It’s a dogfight right to the end for playoff positions. Tonight, we played desperate. We wanted to win. I’m sure we’ll look at it again and critique a couple of things. But, by and large, it was a big effort from the team.”
“The last couple of games, we haven’t had a great effort,” forward Brad Richardson said after his team defeated the Islanders. “But we had some meetings, we talked about things. Hopefully, everything’s straightened out.”
Murray thought his team was turning things around.
“The level of play was much better,” he said following the Kings’ win over Colorado. “Desperation is a good thing to have. Under control desperation is what you need. That brings the intensity, that brings the exciting play. I think we saw that on a pretty consistent, shift-to-shift basis here tonight, so I think we’re starting to get back to where we were pre-Olympics.”
“I think we’re getting it back,” he added. “I like what I’ve seen the last two games and being able to get the two points. We’re starting to get it back.”
But Murray noted that they were not all the way back just yet.
“We have to get our ‘A’ game back,” he said.
But instead of continuing to pick up their intensity and effort, the Kings reverted back to the malaise that has dropped them into seventh place in the Western Conference, just one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot going into action on March 28.
Even worse, the Calgary Flames are just five points behind and if they get things turned around while the Kings continue to sputter, the Kings, who held one of the best records in the league for an extended period this season, will drop all the way out of playoff contention.
To prevent that, something has to be done…now.
“It’s gut-check time now,” said Smyth. “It’s important that we fight through adversity, whether you’re behind a goal or up a goal. You’ve got to come to play.”
“We haven’t played as well as we’re capable since the break, no question,” added Smyth. “I think we all know that in here. Now it’s a sense of urgency and a sense of desperation. We have to play with enthusiasm and excitement. We’ve brought it a few times since the break, but not consistently enough. When we do it, we’re effective. We know that and believe that. Now it’s just executing.”
“Everybody has to bring something better to the table, more than what we’re showing, and not just for a couple of shifts here and there. It’s consistently for sixty minutes.”
Another NHL veteran, one who has a Stanley Cup ring, agreed.
“We didn’t have the right attitude,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said after his team’s 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on March 27. “There’s no reason to panic, but there is a little reason to be concerned with some of our starts, just the way we’ve come out in games recently.”
“It’s a problem,” Scuderi added. “For the Stars, they’re pretty much out of [playoff contention]—not completely, but almost—it’s not a good thing. It’s inexcusable and I think every guy in the locker room would agree that they’ve had a hand in that.”
Despite that, Murray was in full protection mode after the loss to Dallas.
“You guys [the media] are way off here, you’re way off,” Murray stressed. “You’re asking the wrong questions here. The first period, we come out, we’re fine. We’re leading them, 1-0, we’re outshooting them, 12-7. Everything is fine. The start of the game—the right attitude, the right effort, the right intensity—everything is good.”
“Let’s not over-evaluate here,” Murray added. “Our special teams were no good tonight. Penalty-killing was no good, the power play was no good. We don’t score on the opportunities, that’s it. Don’t over-evaluate, don’t over-analyze here because you’re going to go the wrong way.”
“The first period, the start of the game is fine. We’re in good shape, we’re leading the game. Five-on-three power play, four-on-three power play, puck goes off a defenseman’s skate—everything is OK. Everything is fine.”
Of course, no head coach or athlete always tells the truth when they speak to the media and the vast majority use the media to send a message to their team, in one way, shape or form. Murray is no exception, and that is exactly what he was doing in this case.
Indeed, Murray’s team played poorly and did not have the necessary intensity. They put in another poor effort and he knows it.
And so do his players.
“We didn’t execute the game plan that was set out for us,” Smyth lamented. “I don’t think we were hungry enough. The big thing is, shift-to-shift, period-to-period, everything fluctuates. But if you stick to the game plan and do the basics, good things are going to happen. It didn’t tonight.”
Right wing and team captain Dustin Brown was visibly upset after the loss to Dallas and was uncharacteristically blunt in his comments to the media.
“We didn’t have any enthusiasm, any energy,” he said. “It’s disappointing coming off a day off and the situation we’re in. Quite frankly, it’s a lot of [expletive], I think. We need to take a look in the mirror, as individuals and as a team.”
“We need urgency from every aspect of this team, coaches, players, trainers,” he added. “We all need to get that mindset. Ultimately, it lies on the [shoulders of the] players, and that’s the most important thing. As a team, everyone’s involved. We all need to have that mentality, the urgency and we haven’t had it. That’s unacceptable.”
When asked why his view of his team’s performance differed so greatly from his own, Murray said that Brown’s comments were, at least in part, an emotional response.
“It’s pretty emotional out there,” said Murray. “I go in and say some things after the game is over. It’s very emotional. Players are going to respond to that and I hope they do.”
“I was not happy with the way the game ended, but I’m not going to go where you guys [the media] are going here with this, ‘let’s blow it up and start over again,’ because that’s just not the way it is.”
Regardless of the differing views—and, once again, there is no way Murray actually believes the line he was casting out there during his time with the media following the loss to the Stars—the bottom line is that his team is just spinning its wheels due to shoddy performances that lack intensity. Murray knows his team is getting outworked and outplayed by almost every opponent and that the majority of them are playing with much more desperation than the Kings.
And that’s just it. Opponents have generally had the desperation that the Kings have sorely lacked. Why? Could it be that the Kings have gotten complacent, resting on their laurels since it looks like they will qualify for post-season play?
Based on their play since even before the Olympic break, it seems likely that the Kings have allowed themselves to be satisfied with their accomplishments to date, fostering complacency, which does not bode well for post-season play.
“We can’t be expecting to play like this in a couple of weeks,” Brown warned. “Our goal is to make the playoffs, but if we play like this, it’s going to be four and out.”
“We want to get in, but we want to have some momentum going in,” said Smyth. “We haven’t done that, we know that. We know we’re capable of it. It’s urgency.”
With just eight games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Kings cannot wait any longer to start righting the ship—that must begin on March 29, when the Kings begin a quick, two-game road trip at Minnesota, followed by a sure-to-be-tough matchup at fifth-place Nashville on March 30.
“Everyone wants to go into the playoffs winning, but this is, sometimes, part of a season,” Scuderi explained after the loss to Dallas. “We’re not happy about tonight, but the best thing for us is that we get right on the road tomorrow. We play two games right in a row. I think the best thing for us is to be playing hockey immediately.”
Given their trend downward, there are a lot of doubts about the Kings’ ability to quickly turn things around and build momentum heading into the playoffs. But the players are keeping the faith.
“This is the fun part of the year, as we’re driving to the playoffs,” said Richardson. “This team hasn’t been there in awhile, so we definitely don’t need any motivation with that. We’ll be fine. We’ve got a lot of character guys in here.”
“We’re a team that can respond really well,” said Smyth. “We’ve played well on the road this year. I think it’s important that, collectively, we learn from our mistakes. It’s gut-check time. It’s important that we play playoff hockey and we haven’t done that.”
“Individually, you have to take care of yourself, do what you’re capable of doing and bring the best of your abilities to the table for the team,” added Smyth. “Hopefully, it rubs off on other players.”
In the end, the Kings are saying all the right things. But talking does not get the job done on the ice.
“We can talk all we want,” said Smyth. “Now we have to go do it.”
“There’s only so much we can talk about,” Brown emphasized. “Eventually, you have to eat your words and go out there and do it. We’ve had talks lately, again it’s [expletive].”
Indeed, as Brown and Smyth indicated, the time for talking is over. Strong, inspired and decisive action by every player is what’s needed and there is no more time to wait.
Frozen Royalty Audio: Post-Game Interviews, Stars vs. Kings, March 27, 2010 (raw, unedited, with one exception)
Dustin Brown (1:44; edited for language)
Rob Scuderi (2:02)
Terry Murray (3:26)
Ryan Smyth (4:52)
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