LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — To this point in the 2010-11 season, if anything is clear about the Los Angeles Kings, it is that other teams view them as one of the best teams in the NHL, and that is showing up in terms of physical play, as many opponents are going into games against the Kings trying to get them off their game through physical intimidation.
To be sure, despite the fact that right wing Kevin Westgarth, the Kings’ heavyweight enforcer, has not been in a fight yet this season, perhaps due to the fact that he broke Colorado Avalanche heavyweight David Koci’s jaw in a pre-season scuffle back in September, teams seem to be going into games against the Kings with the intent of knocking them around, both with big hits and their fists.
“There were a few hits, a few confrontations,” head coach Terry Murray said after his team’s very physical 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 4. “A little old time hockey with the scrums that were going on. It was a very competitive game out there—two first place teams. The battle heats up.”
One of those hits, albeit a missed one, came late in that game against the Lightning, when Tampa Bay agitator Steve Downie took a run at Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty.
Downie came from distance at nearly full speed and left his feet on the hit. Doughty was able to get out of the way, but the two exchanged words as they skated towards the neutral zone.
Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, Doughty’s defensive partner, quickly came to Doughty’s aid, knocking Downie to the ice and then dropping the gloves with him.
“I was real happy to see that,” said Murray. “That’s the kind of play where you want your partner to stand up for you in a situation like that. Doughty would do the same thing.”
Indeed, the Kings appear to have targets painted on their backs, especially their stars, such as Doughty, who was hit hard from behind by Dallas Stars forward Adam Burish during their game on November 11, a 3-1 Kings victory.
On the play, the puck was already heading towards the back of the Kings’ net from the right corner. Instead of going after the puck, Burish veered left, nailing Doughty from behind, driving him face first into the glass.
Burish received a major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct for his actions.
Doughty, who lost his helmet as his face hit the glass, was slow to get up, but did not miss a shift.
“I just got a scratch on my face,” he said. “Besides that, I’m fine. It was an unfortunate play, but I feel fine. I felt pretty good right after the hit. I stayed down for a bit there, but right after, I felt fine. I knew right away it was nothing serious.”
To further illustrate the apparent strategy of their opponents, even Kings skilled right wing Justin Williams, who leads the team in overall scoring with seven goals and eight assists for 15 points, has had to drop the gloves this season, not to mention that defenseman Davis Drewiske got into his first altercation in the National Hockey League during their November 11 contest against Dallas at Staples Center.
“It happens from time to time,” said Drewiske. “Wouldn’t say that’s my forte, but it’s going to happen and you have to show up. It was good to finally get that first one out of the way.”
Sitting atop the Western Conference standings and second in the overall league standings going into action on November 13 translates into greater respect from the rest of the league for the Kings. But it also means that teams are likely to be gunning for them, and that includes ratcheting up the physical play and rough stuff—anything to get the Kings off their game.
“I definitely think there’s been some physical games lately,” said Doughty. “We’re one of the better teams in the league, right [near] the top spot [in the standings]. Teams are going to be keying on us. We’re not going to be able to fly under the radar anymore and surprise teams like we did last year. We’re one of the better teams in the league, and [other] teams are going to treat us that way.”
“I guess it’s a compliment,” added Doughty. “We play a gritty game, like every other team. We have a lot of guys who can fight, so other teams coming into our building [are going to try to take] us off our game like that, but we’ve done a great job of sticking to our game plan.”
“The last few games have been a little bit more physical,” said Drewiske. “But that’s good. That’s fun. It’s early in the year, but that’s going to push us to get better, too. Teams are going to be ready to go, we’re not going to sneak up on anybody. That means we have to be ready, too. As long as we control what we can and worry about ourselves, we’ll be just fine.”
If anyone thinks teams are going to ease up on the Kings in terms of the physical play anytime soon, guess again.
“It’s going to keep going that way,” said veteran defenseman Matt Greene. “We’re playing teams who are battling for points, especially in the division here. [Dallas has] a tough team. Nothing’s going to be easy this year, and we knew that going in.”
“I think it’s going to be rough all year,” added Greene. “When you’re in meaningful games, teams are getting geared up to play you and that’s fine. We play good when it’s a physical game. We’ve got some big bodies on this team, and that’s what makes it fun. You’re giving hits, you’re taking hits. It gets you into the game right away and makes it interesting.”
“[Dallas was] a division team, and they’ve got a real tough lineup. They’re just playing hard. They’re playing hard hockey. We had to answer back. It’s going to be tight games like that the rest of the year.”
After 14 games, the Kings have responded very well to the big hits and dropped gloves. Perhaps the best example was Drewiske’s fight against Stars agitator Steve Ott on November 11.
Although it turned out to be mostly a wrestling match, Drewiske held his own against a much more experienced pugilist.
“[Drewiske] wasn’t in the lineup, in the last half of the year, very often,” Murray noted. “There was a confidence issue, and he was coming back from the injury—he never really seemed to get into those competitive situations on a consistent basis. Now he’s the kind of player we saw when he first came from the minors to play for us. He’s confident with the puck, making good decisions with it, he’s involved physically—I was very happy to see what happened last night. That’s something I’ve been waiting for him to get involved in, that kind of thing.”
“[It was one of those situations where] you’ve had enough,” Murray added. “You’re supporting yourself. You’re standing up for yourself, your own territory out there. Every player has to do it, whether they like it or not, over the course of their career. Drewiske made a big stride in buying himself some space whenever he’s playing the game.”
While some teams are not well-suited to physical play, the Kings appear to relish it.
“I think our last couple of games, teams have really come at us, physically,” Simmonds explained. “The Tampa Bay game—that was pretty chippy. That was a good game. That’s kind of the style that we like to play. If teams are going to come for us, we’re not going to back down. We’re going to step it up that much more, and I think we answered the bell last night pretty well.”
“There are certain teams that will try to bring more of the physical aspect to the game,” Simmonds elaborated. “Last night [against Dallas] was a division rival, so that adds to the fire. You play those guys six times a year, so you’re bound to have a couple of chippy games. But if teams are going to play that way, we’re going to play the same way we played last night. We have no problem with that.”
Noting the increased physical play and their ability to respond well to it points to the Kings being a tighter, more close-knit team than what has been seen in recent years…and the vast majority of their not-so-recent years, for that matter.
“That’s a team,” Murray said about Mitchell coming to Doughty’s defense, mentioned earlier. “When you start to care about your teammates—it’s that old fox hole mentality, where you’re battling for each other, you love each other, and you do those things. It was great to see.”
Indeed, these guys are tight.
“It’s always a good feeling to have guys stand up by the boards,” said Drewiske. “It’s a good feeling. You’re doing it for the team. You’re not doing it for yourself.”
“We have Westgarth and [rookie left wing Kyle] Clifford, who do a great job protecting guys,” added Drewiske. “Then you have guys like Greene and [right wing Wayne] Simmonds, who aren’t afraid to stand up. Willie Mitchell [stood up for Doughty] the other night against Tampa Bay. It’s good to see. Guys care about each other and protect each other. That’s a good feeling to have, to know that other guys on the ice have your back when you’re out there.”
“In general, teams are pretty close, and you’re going to have each other’s back when you go out there. I’ve certainly seen a lot of that from us so far. That’s good to know. It’s a close group of guys and we take care of each other.”
That strong sense of team fills the air in the Kings’ dressing room, and it is more powerful than it has ever been in recent memory.
“It’s a very competitive game, and when you start to play division games, like we did last night [against Dallas], you’re going to have contact, you’re going to have intensity, and a real ‘compete’ attitude,” said Murray. “That brings the best out of everybody, I think. It makes for an exciting game to watch for the fans, and you see a lot of good things from hockey players.”
“You see who wants to dig in and go the extra five feet to pay that price to get things done,” added Murray. “To me, it really says a lot about the character of your locker room, and now you start to see players playing hard for each other. That’s a good sign.”
“All these guys—we come every day,” Simmonds emphasized. “We battle for one another, and I think that’s the key so far. It’s the way we play—never stop. Play each twenty minutes separately. You just go out and battle for the guy sitting next to you. You don’t want to get off the ice and look beside you and have the guy be disappointed because we’re all family in here.”
In the end, all that adds up to the overarching desire to win.
“You’ve got to be hard, you’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to be hard to play against,” Drewiske stressed. “When you’re playing that way, the other stuff can come along with it. Guys just protect each other, play hard and play physical. They just want to win.”
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