LOS ANGELES — After a smoking hot 12-3-0 start followed by a 2-6-0 nose dive, one thing has been a constant for the Los Angeles Kings this season…
…that they have a gaping hole on their top line at left wing, as evidenced by the fact that so many players have played that position this season with varying degrees of success…or failure. Indeed, so many players have played alongside center Anze Kopitar that one could fill an entire roster just with those players.
That is an exaggeration, of course, but you get the point. The Kings’ first line was inconsistent, at best, during the team’s hot start. In fact, the first line was supplanted by the Kings’ second line of left wing Ryan Smyth, center Jarret Stoll, and right wing Justin Williams as their top offensive line in terms of production.
During their 2-6-0 skid, the Kings’ problems started in their own end, where they were giving up Grade A scoring chances and goals in bunches. But later in the slide, the problems moved to the other end of the ice as the team stopped scoring.
The solution? Following their 2-0 loss at Anaheim on November 29, head coach Terry Murray made yet another change on his top line, moving Williams up to play the right side with Kopitar while right wing Dustin Brown shifted over to left wing.
In the two games (both wins) the Kings have played since the change, the new first line has combined for four goals and four assists for eight points.
Two of the goals were game-winners by Kopitar, who has scored ten goals and has added 14 assists for 24 points in 25 games this season.
Kopitar was quietly putting up numbers during the Kings’ hot streak. But, like some of the other top players on the team, he appears to be heating up just as the Kings are getting healthy.
On December 9, the Kings expect to get left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky back in the lineup after missing twelve games due to a broken finger suffered on November 6, in a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Just a couple of days after that, when the Kings begin a five-game road trip at Detroit, veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who suffered a broken wrist in that same game against Nashville, is also expected to return.
With those two key veterans returning to the lineup, the timing could not have been better for the Kings’ best players to start picking up their games.
One example of that came in the 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers at Staples Center on December 2, when the Kings came back from a 2-1 deficit and won the game on a late third-period goal by Kopitar.
“Over the last nine games, we’ve been giving up those goals late in the game,” defenseman Matt Greene noted. “Those are back breakers. To have your best player give you that effort, give you that goal, it means a ton to the guys on this team.”
“With our top players like that, we go where they go,” Greene stressed. “So for him to step up and get that big goal by battling in front and getting his stick on that, it’s huge for us. It’s a huge relief. I think everyone in here is fifty pounds lighter.”
Murray said he hoped the game-winner would be the catalyst that pushes Kopitar to elevate his game even more.
“You look for certain players, over the course of the year, to be consistent in offensive production, and Kopitar is one of those guys for us,” said Murray. “I’m hoping that this is a breakthrough here, that he can continue on, and that line can build on that kind of momentum, that energy that happens off scoring that kind of goal.”
In that game, Brown recorded an assist, but had a much bigger impact on the physical side of the game.
“He started to lead the way,” Murray noted. “He’s an excellent checker, an impact hitter anytime he wants to be. I think he sets the tone for the game.”
“Everybody on the bench feeds off that kind of energy,” Murray added. “It was important for us to get out, get a forecheck going and take some bodies.”
Though they did not record a point in the game, young defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, who have been inconsistent so far this season, both played solid games.
“I thought they were very good,” said Murray. “We’re talking about our best players being the best players, and the back end there was a big improvement with Doughty and Johnson tonight. You have to have it in the game today. It’s a very hard thing to score out there. Teams are pulling back five guys at their blue line, and it’s really difficult to make things happen in the offensive part of the game.”
“You have to have your defensemen—the secondary attack—coming up all the time,” added Murray. “It paid off for us tonight, and I thought those two guys did a great job moving the puck on the blue line, getting pucks to the net from that low to high look, and generating second and third opportunities.”
The Kings’ best players were even better on December 4, in a 3-2 victory over the mighty, Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings, a game that did not start out all that well for the Kings.
“I think Detroit came out a little better than what we did,” said Murray. “They probably talked about their start [on December 3] in Anaheim. They were outplayed and outshot by a wide margin, and they didn’t want that to happen tonight against a rested hockey club.”
The Kings were a little better late in the first period, and finally found their legs in the second.
“They took the game to us, I thought, in the first half of the first period, and then, after the ten-minute mark, I think we got our legs underneath us and started playing,” Kopitar explained. “That’s where it started to roll for us. I thought we had a good second period, and in the third, we came out and it was up for grabs. It was a 2-2 game going into the third.”
“I thought we cranked it up in the second period,” Kopitar elaborated. “We got a couple of goals there, and we had some good momentum off the power play. We didn’t get a goal on it, but I thought we generated quite a few chances, and we got some shots on net. Detroit’s always a good team, and you have to be very disciplined against them.”
That set the stage for another game-winning goal by Kopitar, only this one came in much more dramatic fashion.
At 4:04 of the overtime period, Kopitar was on the receiving end of a cross-ice pass from Brown and finished off a three-on-two break with a one-timer from the top of the right circle that beat Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood between his leg pads as he moved to his left.
“I think the early goal in the second really got us going.” said Williams, who scored that goal just 24 seconds into the period. “They were shutting us down, doing kind of what they wanted out there. That’s what they do. They’re a puck possession team, and they don’t give you many chances.”
“I thought we took advantage of them tonight,” added Williams. “Everyone stepped up tonight, and Kopitar got a huge winning goal.”
As he was against Florida, Brown was a physical force in this game as well.
“I liked what we did in the offensive zone in front of the net, Brown especially,” Murray noted. “He was around the net a lot tonight. To me, that’s always a good sign, when he gets his body in there, battling, strong on the puck, looking for loose pucks.”
“That part of it is getting better,” Murray added. “At the other end, I think over the last three or four games, we’ve really given that a big push in practice, and we’re starting to follow through with it in game situations.”
Looking back at the two games, the Kings’ best players have been just that.
“I think everybody was working hard, everybody was playing up to their potential,” Kopitar said after the win over Florida. “Now, it’s a matter of keeping it going like that every game for sixty minutes. If put in an effort like we did tonight, I like our chances.”
“We started well, we’ve struggled of late, but we’re on an upward trend again,” Williams said after the win over the Red Wings. “We’ve got a few days off now—we don’t play until next Thursday. We need to have some good practice and be ready to keep things rolling.”
Although the Kings have put things together in the two games, as it is often said, it’s just two games. Things could go back in other direction just as easily as they could go in a positive direction.
Nevertheless, getting healthy again and having their best players show that they might be starting to lead the way consistently could not come at a better time with that five-game road swing looming. With a little luck, the Kings have a chance to put together a run of wins.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster when you win a few in a row,” said Kopitar. “The thing starts to click.”
“We’ve got to get back on a winning streak,” Murray said after the win over Detroit. “You’ve got to put five, six, seven games together now to keep yourself on pace with the rest of the league. It’s so darned competitive. Hopefully, this is a game we can look back on and say it did the job for us.”
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