LOS ANGELES KINGS SEEK CONSISTENCY: The following is a look at one of the most significant reasons the Los Angeles Kings are struggling to reach the next level and beyond. Also includes post-game audio interviews following their game against the Chicago Blackhawks on January 3.
LOS ANGELES — Last season, the Los Angeles Kings tantalized their long-suffering fans with a 101-point regular season and their first playoff appearance since 2002. To top it off, they got off to a blazing hot start in 2010-11, earning a 12-3-0 record in their first 15 games.
But then the wheels fell off the cart in November, with the Kings losing seven out of eight games from November 15 to November 29.
The Kings followed that up with a 9-3-0 record in their next twelve games, only to lose their last four games, the latest being a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 3.
Can you say inconsistent? I knew that you could!
Early in the season, the Kings were playing solid defense and were getting just enough scoring to put them firmly into the win column, despite the fact that their power play was virtually non-existent. But when they got into their big losing streak in November, their defensive zone coverage fell apart, and they gave up a ton of gift-wrapped goals.
During their strong December, the Kings fixed their defensive zone issues and the power play started to heat up. Then, in games at Colorado (a 5-0 win on December 21), against the Anaheim Ducks (a 4-1 win on December 26), and at San Jose (a 4-0 victory on December 27), the Kings put in their best performances of the season, and in recent memory.
“In those games, the Kings played the best hockey I’ve seen them play in twenty years,” said Jim Fox, Kings television color commentator and former right wing who ranks eighth on their all-time scoring list.
One might think that playing that well would spur the team onto even greater heights.
Indeed, the Kings followed those games by losing big to the Phoenix Coyotes (6-3 at Phoenix on December 29) and the Philadelphia Flyers (7-4 on December 30), before dropping a 1-0 decision to the San Jose Sharks on New Year’s Day, followed by the loss to Chicago.
Against the Coyotes and Flyers, the Kings, once again, forgot about their defensive zone.
“The one thing I felt that was uncharacteristic for us [was] that we gave [the Flyers] too much time, too much space,” said head coach Terry Murray. “They were making plays to the back [goal] post. Those are the plays they can make when you give them time.”
“That’s where we have to be a better checking team,” added Murray. “We’ve got to get stick on puck, we have to have better gaps, better spacing in our defensive zone coverage, and that’s what we’ll get to work on now.”
The players did not need their coach to explain to them what went wrong.
“[They were] certainly two of our ugliest of the year,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said following the loss to Philadelphia. “We’re not making excuses for ourselves, but it does happen. We have to scrape them under the rug and move on.”
“We’re certainly not tightening up like we should be and have been all season,” Scuderi added. “That’s the way it goes sometimes. You try to shake it off, but we’re going to need some work on [their defensive coverage].”
“It’s lapses,” said defenseman Matt Greene. “We’re just not playing well on the back end, and that’s something that needs to change right away if we want to win games. We can’t give up six and seven in back-to-back nights and expect to win any games.”
Those ups and down can be maddening for everyone involved, from the players, coaches and front office, to the fans, and in the recent losses to the Sharks and Blackhawks, the Kings’ ups and downs could not have been more apparent.
Against San Jose, the Kings fixed their defensive problems, but they sputtered offensively, failing to get much traffic in front.
“We had our chances, we just didn’t bury them,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “The effort was there, we had good defensive play. We gave up one goal—I think it was a three-on-three.”
“We have to get more bodies around the net,” added Brown. “Their defense did a good job of letting [Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi] see the puck, too. We had a lot of chances from the point where he saw the puck and made saves, so we’ve got to get more guys in front of the net and around the net.”
“When you take a look at the end of two periods, we’re basically doing a lot of good things,” said Murray. “Our shot count is up, we had a lot of really good scoring chances. But I thought, in the offensive zone, we were not creating enough traffic at their net. [Niemi] saw a lot of pucks that were coming from up top. He’s a good goaltender, but he’s going to be a better goaltender if you don’t create a lot of havoc and get in his face on a consistent basis, and I thought we were just inconsistent in that area.”
Although they fired nothing but blanks offensively, there were things to be happy about.
“I was very pleased with this game tonight, as far as the compete [level],” Murray stressed. “Everybody was connected emotionally. I thought everyone came out with the intensity and purpose. Every shift had meaning to it. The right stuff was done.”
“Everything was in place. We just didn’t find a way to put it in the net.”
Against the Blackhawks, the Kings came out flying in the first period, completely dominating the Blackhawks in every way, except on the scoreboard, as the period ended in a 1-1 tie. But the Kings sagged in the second period, coming out rather flat.
“I felt the start of the game was excellent,” Murray explained. “We did everything we wanted to do with the intensity, knowing they were a team that played yesterday. We had a lot of offensive zone time.”
“The second period—we were fine for the first four or five minutes,” Murray elaborated. “Then, the intensity changed. The tempo changed. We got ourselves in trouble and stopped managing the puck the right way. We forgot about the details of the game. We were not bumping people the way we were in the first period, and they got their legs. They started to skate, and came at us.”
“Our attention to detail broke down, and it cost us again. I think we shot ourselves in the foot again here tonight with the intensity and with the details with the puck.”
After the game, the players were disappointed with their uneven performance.
“The second period was probably the key,” said right wing Justin Williams. “We came away with a tie after two periods, but we still lost a little bit of momentum. We didn’t finish the game off. We didn’t go hard the whole way through.”
“Hockey is a game of momentum,” added Williams. “There’s little plays here and there in the game that will ultimately swing it. [Not making the] little plays in the game [is] detrimental to success. We took the second period a little too lightly, and they came at us.”
“The effort was there, but it was there in spurts,” center Anze Kopitar lamented. “We have to figure out how to have it there for sixty minutes. That’s when our game and our team takes over. When we can pull together a string of [good, solid] shifts, we can dominate any team in the league. But, for some reason, we let up. Sometimes we try to do too much. Other times, we’re not doing the right things on the ice. That burns us every time. We get scored on, and I think that’s just the most disappointing thing—not pulling together a sixty-minute effort.”
Despite the four-game losing streak, the Kings know that all is not lost.
“The tight games—we’re going to find ways to win them,” said Williams. “I know we are. We have the team in here to do it.”
“It’s just getting everyone on the same page,” said Greene. “We just have to get things rolling at the same time. I think we’re a dangerous hockey team when we’re hitting on all cylinders.”
Nevertheless, the four-game skid is a huge cause for concern, especially noting that the Kings have eight more home games in January before heading out on a brutal February schedule that has them playing ten straight road games before their next home game on February 24 against the Minnesota Wild.
The bottom line is that the Kings need to take great advantage of their time at home this month to give themselves a cushion in the standings ahead of their brutal February schedule, but they must right the ship immediately.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Greene stressed. “We just have to go back at it. We’ve got a lot of games coming up here at home and we’ve got to be ready for that. We’ve got a big home stand to turn this around and put this in the back of our heads.”
Note that there is a difference between concern and panic.
“There’s certainly cause for concern, but you never want to panic,” Scuderi noted. “It’s OK to be concerned, it’s OK to have a little more urgency and desperation. But its not OK to panic, because that’s a sign of a sinking team.”
The problem for the Kings is that they are still a Jekyll and Hyde team, one that has not yet figured out how to achieve a level of consistency.
“The consistency of performance is where you want to get to,” said Murray. “Usually, you get to that level when you become a more mature hockey club. You’re going to have high level performances, you’re going to have great wins like we’ve had recently, but you can let it fall out if you’re not totally on page [mentally], and being able to deal with the success that you have.”
“If you back off the gas pedal a little bit, emotionally, it’ll come back and bite you, and it has two games in a row, especially the game in Phoenix, I thought we were not [tuned into] what was going on, and [we paid] for it,” added Murray.
“That’s part of the learning process that you’re going to go through. You’re going to have to deal with the lows and deal with the highs and try to find that common ground of staying level-minded about it all, and come to work the next day and do it all over again.”
As Murray alluded to, this is all part of the growing pains of a young team.
“It shows to all of us, and certainly to a young hockey club, that everything matters,” he noted. “Every play matters. Every puck possession, every shift that you’re out there, it’s important to stay totally focused and intense. It all matters a great deal.”
“That’s the way it’s going to be in the second half of the year. It’s one-goal games all the time, and we know what it’s like in the playoffs,” he added, following the loss to the Sharks. “It’s a lesson we need to take out of this one.”
Murray can take some solace in knowing that his team will be at home for awhile, where they can work on their game.
“We’re going to get back on the ice to practice,” said Murray. “Out of this whole thing, that’s probably the light at the end of the tunnel for me, that we’re going to be home for six or seven now.”
“We’re a young hockey club, and when you’re on the road, traveling, late nights—it’s not an excuse, it’s just part of the schedule, that’s the way it is in the NHL,” added Murray. “It’s a reason. You’re not going to get the quality work in to keep the habits in place. But now, we’re back. We’ve got about two weeks of being around here, playing some games. [Even more important is] getting on the ice in practice, reviewing and going through the fundamentals of the game.”
As stated earlier, the Kings’ inconsistency is so often apparent that it can be maddening, and is a stark contrast to where they need and want to be.
“The good teams just do it every time, every shift,” Murray emphasized. “They just play. It’s like the [golf] pro playing against the -5 handicap golfer. He just has to play the game because he knows that you’re a -5 handicapper. He knows something’s going to give down the road.”
But the question on the minds of many is: when should the Kings be expected to get past the problems that young teams face, such as inconsistency?
That is a question that Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi and Murray will have to address in the not-too-distant future. But, for now, the Kings are still looking for the keys that will let them out of the classroom so they can reach the next levels.
“Learning, learning, learning,” said Williams. “That’s what we’re doing right now.”
Raw post-game audio interviews from Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings (a 4-3 Blackhawks win) at Staples Center on January 3
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Anze Kopitar (1:20)
Justin Williams (3:36)
Terry Murray (8:42)
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