LOS ANGELES — Here in the Los Angeles area, if you listened carefully, one could probably hear sporadic cheers, glasses clinking, maybe even a few car horns honking in celebration…and, oh yeah…even the Earth moved.
Indeed, Los Angeles area hockey fans had great reason to celebrate on April 4 because with the Chicago Blackhawks handing the Calgary Flames a 4-1 defeat, the Los Angeles Kings secured a playoff berth for the first time since 2002 and just their fifth playoff appearance since 1993, when the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Qualifying for post-season play was the goal for the mostly young Kings going into this season and, especially for some, it has been a long, long time coming.
“It’s a long time coming for me and a few other guys who have been here for awhile,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “We’ve grown a lot.”
“This is the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in the league,” added Brown. “Just the prospect of playing in the playoffs and having these last ten games [of the regular season] mean something is always a lot of fun.”
But the big question facing the Kings now is if they are just going to be happy to have made the playoffs and be satisfied with that, or are they going to go into the post-season determined and ready to be a formidable opponent?
To be sure, the Kings’ highly inconsistent play since the Olympic break only raises serious doubts, and as their 7-7-3 record since the break indicates, intensity, urgency and effort have all been cited as deficiencies too many times in the last six weeks.
After two solid wins, at Nashville on April 1 and against Vancouver on April 3 at Staples Center, it appeared that the Kings had figured things out and turned their game around.
“We talked about bringing home the attitude we showed in Nashville,” head coach Terry Murray said after his team’s win over Vancouver. “We had a good game there. We started that game with energy and puck movement that was as good as any other game this year, and it’s time we did that at home. It’s what we needed.”
“Those are teams we’ve not beaten in two years,” added Murray. “We’ve been close a few times. Vancouver is a tough team to play against. They’re physical, they’re hard, they really shut things down in the neutral zone, they make it difficult to get any speed generated, but we got a nice response from everybody here tonight.”
“It shows the character of our hockey club. The group in there is talking that way. They’re rolling the lines over and keeping shifts real short to keep the tempo high. Everyone’s buying in right now. We’re getting back on track.”
At least, that’s what it looked like.
“I look back to the Nashville game—that was a huge, huge game for us, being on the skid that we were,” said Brown. “That was a start-to-finish [effort] game and we followed it up with another start-to-finish game.”
“We’re starting to get that attitude, that mentality we had before the Olympic break where we went through a long stretch and did win consecutive games,” Murray explained. “It’s starting to come back. There’s a good feel in the room. They’re saying the right things and carrying it on the ice.”
“Even in practice, it’s not me blowing the whistle,” Murray elaborated. “It’s players pushing each other. Make the pass. Do things right. That’s really important as you move forward through this time.”
Murray noted that the “turnaround” began after his team’s tough, 2-0 loss at Minnesota on March 30.
“That started to happen after losing in Minnesota, believe it or not,” he said. “You come in the next day, it’s a back-to-back game. You get in to Nashville real late and you’re going to get on the ice in practice. Guys are a little tired, but they’re keeping it loose. You’ve got to forget about it.”
“We did a lot of good things in the Minnesota game, so keep building on it and moving forward,” he added. “I thought that started to show in the Nashville game. “It’s important that we keep the focus. We put a focus on that. One good game, like the Nashville game where you win on the road and bring that home, it’s easier to build of that kind of momentum.”
Although the Kings kept their focus and beat Vancouver, that focus was nowhere to be found on April 4, when they put in a sloppy effort that lacked the necessary intensity and the attention to detail in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
“When you get five guys back in the neutral zone, like the way they were playing, it really bogs things down,” said Murray. “It takes all the flow away. You have to make decisions to get the puck behind their goal line or, at least, to their goal line. That’s where we started having issues in the first period—trying to do too much, trying to carry it in, refusing to dump the puck in. You end up chasing everything out there.”
“It’s the decisions that you make within the game that allow you to get some offensive opportunities,” added Murray. “That was not what we were doing here tonight. We were trying to do too much. We have to elevate our overall tempo. The pace has to get higher. I thought our spacing, when we did get the puck in the offensive zone, was, again, too big. We’ve got to tighten things up and give each other closer support. We just got away from all the good things we’ve built in the last two games.”
The number of young players who make up the Kings’ core has been a key factor in the team’s inconsistency. But they are going to have to learn some valuable lessons quickly—before the playoffs begin—if the Kings are to go into the post-season with the necessary momentum.
More importantly, the Kings’ early-season success and their ability to compete with any team in the National Hockey League when they are on their game has raised expectations beyond just making the playoffs.
Indeed, while they have reached one level of success, the Kings must not bow out of the first round in four games, or even five. In short, they cannot be a first-round pushover, and that brings us back to the question:
Are the Kings, especially their young core, satisfied with making the playoffs, as their play since the Olympic break seems to indicate, or are they focused on doing some damage once they get there?
Unless they fix their problems with urgency and intensity and do that before the regular season ends so they can build momentum going into the first round, the Kings would appear to be destined for a quick exit from the playoffs.
“This is a young group of guys that have a very hard time understanding how important it is to establish certain parts of your game,” Murray lamented. “You want to build off the games we’ve played recently. We’ve come out with really good efforts from the beginning.”
“We have it, it’s just that it’s not there for the full sixty minutes,” Murray added. “We just played that way [against Nashville and Vancouver] . We know how to do it. We have to come in and have a clear understanding that it needs to be established right away.”
“It’s not a hard thing to understand. It’s just that young guys need to buy into it, totally.”
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