LOS ANGELES — Quit pinching yourselves, Los Angeles hockey fans. You are not dreaming.
Yes, the Los Angeles Kings have made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and for just the fifth time since 1993, when the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Like that 1992-93 team, this year’s Kings started the regular season hot. But unlike the 1992-93 team, which peaked at just the right time, this season’s Kings have struggled since the Olympic break and are not going into the post-season playing their best hockey.
Earning a 9-7-5 record since the break, the Kings were often plagued by slow starts, poor puck support, a non-existent forecheck, taking too many penalties, shaky goaltending, a lack of urgency…you get the idea.
In the last handful of games of the regular season, the Kings showed some improvement, but were unable to put it all together consistently. Indeed, if they got off to a good start, their puck support and forechecking was lacking. Or, when those aspects of their game were solid, they failed to get to the front of the net and get the puck there as well.
A prime example of that came on April 10, when the Kings poured 55 shots on backup goalie Devan Dubnyk, but lost to the worst-in-the-league Edmonton Oilers, 2-1, in a shootout.
“[Dubnyk was] real good, but I felt, and we talked about it between periods and on the bench, he saw a lot of pucks coming from the blue line,” head coach Terry Murray said. “We were doing a great job with our cycle, possession, low to high, getting shots through from the top end. But we didn’t have the traffic. There was a loose puck there on almost every shot that came to the net and we were not in position to put second and third opportunities to the net. That was really the story of the game.”
“Anybody playing goal in the NHL who sees the puck from the blue line is going to stop pretty much every one of them,” Murray added. “We had the right attitude about getting pucks and playing in the offensive zone. That’s one of the strengths of our game—our cycle, our forecheck, our shot mentality. The net presence has been good all year long, although it was not good here tonight.”
On the eve of game one of their first round playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks, there is no more time to wait to get their game running on all cylinders.
“We need to realize that you can’t just turn it on come Thursday,” veteran defenseman Sean’ O’Donnell, who won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, told LAKings.com. “We’re still undisciplined, we’re still losing some checks. But the big thing I see is the penalties.”
“Come playoffs, you can’t be taking five, six, seven penalties a game,” added O’Donnell. “It’s got to be three, maybe four at the most, and that’s it. That’s one thing we need to work on.”
Establishing a forecheck and generating sustained pressure in the Vancouver zone will also be a key for the Kings.
“If you get the puck in behind any team and make them play below the dots in their own end, you can give yourself an opportunity to generate some scoring chances,” Murray told LAKings.com. “We’re a pretty good cycle team. We have players who are very strong on the puck and can take it to the net. That’s a big part of the focus we have to have.”
“We have to make stronger plays entering the zone,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “We need more offensive zone play from everyone. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s going to take hard work and good [puck] support.”
The Kings have shown throughout the season that they must get their forecheck going if they are to be successful.
“Our puck placement on dumps is the key to our success,” said Brown. “If we have good dumps, we have a good forecheck and if we have a good forecheck, we can cycle on teams. It’s very much attention to detail, especially on dumps. It’s not easy, when you’ve got three guys on you to chip it in the corner where you give your teammate to get on it. But it’s something that needs to be done if we want to be successful.”
“I think we’re one of the best cycle teams in the league,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “When we do it, we have some big bodies among our forwards. They get it back to the point and we get shots to the net. That’s when we score goals.”
And then there is that little thing about getting traffic in front of the net and getting the puck on net frequently…
“Goaltending is huge throughout the year, but in the playoffs, if you can get on top of the goalie’s crease, find a way to distract and cause a little havoc, it could be beneficial in the long run,” said veteran right wing Ryan Smyth, who went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals with the Oilers in 2006.
“[We need to make it tough] for [Canucks superstar goaltender Roberto] Luongo to be Luongo,” Brown stressed. “That’s just a matter of getting traffic in front and getting him off his game. There isn’t a goalie in the league who likes traffic.”
Although Luongo has had problems of his own since the Olympic break, all eyes have been on Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has struggled over the last six weeks.
Quick, who played in 72 games this season, winning 39, sat out the final game of the season in favor of backup netminder Erik Ersberg.
The hope is that the extra rest will get Quick back on his game.
“It’ll get him re-focused,” said Murray. “The one word I keep using with him whenever I have conversations with him is ‘concentration.’ Time away is always a good thing, to get that focus back, the concentration level back.”
“With the few days off, it gives him time to kick back, reflect a little bit and get back on track,” added Murray.
Quick said that despite the heavy workload, he is not feeling fatigued.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’ve played some good games down the stretch here, but, unfortunately, I didn’t come out on the winning end. That happens. But, as a team, and me, personally, we’ve won plenty of games this year to be confident going into the playoffs, so it doesn’t make a difference.”
Murray said that Quick has been sharp in practice leading up to game one.
“I like the way he practiced today,” Murray noted. “It looks like he’s ready. Technically, he’s fine. He’s on top of the crease, he’s doing the right thing, absorbing pucks.”
But practice is one thing. Coming up big once the series begins is an entirely different story. Will Quick get his act together, especially in terms of his mental game?
“It needs to be there, he’s got to bring it there,” Murray emphasized. “That’s the one thing he’s always shown to me, that he’s got that strut about his game, about his attitude. It has to be there. This is a big time of the year.”
Another factor in the series, although probably not as significant as many have made it out to be, is the number of young Kings players who have no playoff experience.
Murray’s advice to them is to relax, play their game and enjoy the playoffs.
“Just go play good,” said Murray. “Enjoy the post-season. It’s a great time, it’s a fun time. You’ve got to take a look around and see what’s happening around you as you play the game.”
But along with that advice came a warning.
“Just play good, be consistent,” Murray stressed. “Out of that, extraordinary things will happen. In my experience, it’s a real error in judgement, especially for younger players, where they feel, ‘oh my goodness. It’s the playoffs. I’ve got to do everything so right, I’ve got to be so good. I’ve got to make the perfect decision, the perfect play, all the time.’”
“If you go into the playoffs with that kind of attitude, you’re going to freeze yourself,” Murray elaborated. “Something bad’s going to happen. You’re going to make a mistake and now you’re going to sit there and beat yourself up mentally and emotionally and not be able to go back for the next shift.”
The Kings have been in Vancouver since late in the afternoon on April 14, waiting for the first drop of the puck in game one and in the eyes of their head coach, they are prepared.
“Physically, the players are ready,” said Murray. “The attitude in these games has to be playoff-like. It’s eighty percent attitude, twenty percent skill. If you feel you’re tired, you’ve got to talk yourself out of it. You’ve got to feel great. That’s the mental aspect of the game. You’ve got to push through all the hard things and pay the price in order to get it done.”
If the Kings can do that throughout the series, they should win it in six or seven games, despite the fact that the Canucks have such a potent attack led by the league’s top scorer, Henrik Sedin. But if the Kings are unable to get it together, the Canucks will resurface the ice with them in five or six.
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