LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the 2011 National Hockey League All-Star festivities in Raleigh, North Carolina now just a fading memory, players are now returning to their teams facing the uphill climb that is otherwise known as the stretch drive to the playoffs.
But after a dismal 3-8-0 performance in January, which was part of a larger skid in which they lost ten out of twelve games, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves in a huge hole that they must climb out of before they can even start thinking about the stretch run.
But wait, you say. The Kings are just one point out of a playoff berth in the Western Conference standings aren’t they? How is that a huge hole?
To answer that, just take a look the Kings’ February schedule. It will be a brutal month that has them playing their next ten games on the road, starting at Minnesota on February 1. To make matters worse, the Kings also have to play games on consecutive nights four times in February.
The Western Conference has been hyper-competitive this season, with the top teams bunched together very closely in the standings all season long, and that is expected to continue right to the end. As such, conventional wisdom dictates that the Kings need to earn at least twelve points during those ten games just to remain in the hunt.
But what went so terribly wrong in January?
Lackadaisical play, poor puck support on breakouts, a plethora of costly turnovers, defensive blunders and mental breakdowns all played a huge role, as did inconsistent effort. But just as glaring was not getting enough traffic in front of opposing goaltenders, who generally had an easy time seeing Kings’ shots.
“We need to get inside a little more, get better position at the net, and, in turn, get a rebound goal or two,” said right wing Justin Williams following a 2-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center in Los Angeles. “That’s what we need to get us off this hump.”
“Net presence is definitely an area that has to be addressed, every day, every game,” said head coach Terry Murray. “That’s not a part of the game that’s instinctive to a lot of players, and that’s pretty true around the league. You’ve got a lot of skill in the National Hockey League, and everybody thinks they can pass the puck into the net. But you get teams that are good teams—you look at Detroit. They’ve won Stanley Cups. They’ve got a net presence guy in [Tomas] Holmstrom. He’s there all the time. That’s his home plate.”
“We need to develop that with a young player,” added Murray. “I think we’ve got some people on this team right now that will willingly do that, and that’s going to happen. It takes some time, but the attitude is there to be able to work with that part of the game.”
That lack of net presence also had an adverse affect on their power play during the Kings’ January slump.
“You’ve got to look at your five-on-five results and kind of build off that same mentality,” said Murray. “We’ve often talked about our power play in the past, and when things are not going well, in one part of our game—because I do like our breakouts, we’re coming with speed, we’re getting possession, when we do dump it in, we are recovering pucks, we’re doing a good job in that part of it.”
“But, clearly, when we’re shooting the pucks, as we saw in the game at home against Phoenix, the goaltender was seeing everything coming from the blue line,” added Murray. “That kind of five-on-five look we showed last night has to be carried through to the power play. Good things can happen off that.”
But the power play has been a problem for the Kings all season long, having scored just 31 power play goals on 184 chances with the man advantage, good for a 16.8 percent rating, ranking them 20th in the thirty-team NHL.
“You go back over a bunch of games through this whole stretch, and the power play could make a difference for you,” Murray said after the loss to Phoenix on January 20. “Penalty-killing can lose you a game, and it has. Power plays, in this situation tonight, could’ve won us the game.”
“We had some real good things going on with the early power plays, but as we got deeper into the game, we lost the momentum and the cohesiveness of our power play groups to support each other, recover pucks and make plays,” added Murray.
Since their power play has been such a glaring problem all season long, perhaps some added attention is in order.
“I feel like we should practice the power play every day, it’s such a big part of the game,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “Penalty-killing is really tough to practice. That’s more about an attitude, blocking shots and working really hard. But the power play—I feel like we should work on it more.”
“We’re struggling right now, and we’re working on it, but it should be something that we’re working on consistently.” added Brown.
Despite such a poor showing in January, the Kings will start February with some momentum, having won their last three games heading into the All-Star break.
“Phoenix battled hard in the second period, and we had a hockey game in the third,” Murray noted after the Kings defeated the Coyotes, 4-3, at Phoenix on January 22. “It’s a tie game, so let’s go after it again, and we responded very well. It was a good third period.”
In that game, the Kings took a 3-0 lead in the first period, only to see the Coyotes score the next three. It took a huge shift and a highlight-reel, diving goal by center Jarret Stoll for the Kings to eke out a win.
“The shift that ended up scoring the winning goal was outstanding,” Murray beamed. “You’re looking at a 35-40 second shift of cycling, possession, doing all the right things. It was just a great finish with a desperate dive for the puck. There was a lot of hunger shown in that play. It was a nice finish to a much needed win.”
The Kings followed that with a textbook-perfect, 2-0 victory over the Boston Bruins on January 24 at Staples Center—arguably their finest performance of the season.
“That was a good game, that was a good performance by everybody tonight,” said Murray. “There was a lot of compete, a lot of skating, we were thinking the game out there—the support, the communication on the ice was as good as its been all year, and that’s against a very good hockey club, the best team in the National Hockey League in the third period. Their plus/minus is, by far, the best, and you can see why. They stay with it, they play the game hard, they have skill, they get the puck going north with a lot of speed.”
“But we checked, we were very responsible without the puck tonight, and our goaltender was outstanding,” added Murray.
“[We were] just doing the little things right, capitalizing on the special teams, and [goaltender Jonathan] Quick played outstanding,” said right wing Ryan Smyth. “He gave us a chance and made some spectacular saves tonight.”
“Second efforts, gritty effort, getting in there,” added Smyth. “They’re a big team and they play hard-nosed hockey. But we got a little gritty tonight.”
The ice was much more rough on January 26, when the Kings hosted the San Jose Sharks, a contest that had the intensity of a playoff game. When it was over, the Kings emerged with a desperately needed 3-2 shootout win.
“That was a playoff hockey game,” Murray noted. “It was hard, it was heavy, there was good checking, there was some big hits, there was some scoring, it was a fun game.”
As they did in their win at Phoenix on January 22, the Kings got a huge shift when they needed it, only this time, the hero was an unlikely one.
The Kings got their forechecking going and kept the pressure on in the Phoenix zone for an extended period. Finally, the puck wound up in the low slot where left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky backhanded the puck into the net on his second whack.
“We really hung on there,” said Ponikarovsky. “It was a pretty long [shift]. When you’ve got those guys in their zone like that, you’ve just have to stick there, try to out-battle them, and put the puck in the net, because you basically wear them down and they all were tired—it was the end of the shift. We were lucky to battle and put it in.”
“I thought the shift was absolutely outstanding,” Murray stressed. “Recovering pucks—they tried to clear it two or three times, but [defenseman Rob] Scuderi kept it in, You just want to keep pucks going to the net—good things can happen.”
“That was the kind of shift you have to have,” Murray added. “You want to continue to play the game the right way, making plays, getting on the puck. We had been doing a lot of good things in the game, and you just want to continue to do it.”
Getting that third straight win was huge going forward.
“We need wins, we need two points every time we come out,” said Quick. “We dug a little hole [in the standings] for ourselves, and I think we’re doing a good job of starting to climb back out. But we still have a lot of work to do. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to take one game at a time. But we need two points every time.”
Indeed, the Kings know that they have made things much more difficult for themselves going into a brutal February, and their coach talked about what they have to do to be successful.
“You’ve got to play the right way,” said Murray. “You’ve got to play hard, play with tempo and get off the ice in short shifts. If you do that by playing four lines, you can keep the game level and at a pretty good pace. I think that’s what’s happening here the last few games. There’s a great deal of team play going on. We’re going to have to have everybody clicking as we get into the month of February and all those road games.”
“You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game all the time,” added Murray. “That’s the way it’s been. We’ve known about this, we’ve talked about this since well before Christmas—how important every game is, to do things right, to make sure you’re coming to practice to get yourself ready for the next game.”
“When you have success, you’re going to be more confident,” said defenseman Matt Greene. “That game in Phoenix, as sloppy as it was at times, just getting that win put a lot of guys at ease. It let guys relax a little bit. It gives us faith in the system, that it’s going to work if we do it the right way. Tonight was a clear example of that. When we’re playing our game, we’re a good team. It’s just a matter of bringing that game every night.”
GETTING MORE AND NEEDING MORE
Ponikarovsky, the unlikely hero mentioned earlier, had been struggling for much of the season after getting off to a solid start in a checking role. But after coming back from finger and ankle injuries, he was not the player he was earlier in the season, and was the target of criticism by Murray.
But in the Kings’ last three games, Ponikarovsky has looked like the player he was earlier in the season.
“I was happy for Poni because he has had a difficult stretch here, a couple of injuries,” said Murray. “But maybe that’ll be the catalyst to get him starting to put the puck in the net more consistently”
“It took a few games at the start of the year to get settled in, and then, after that, he really started to play well, ” added Murray. “Then, bang…the injury happens. But [tonight], I’ve got him out on the penalty-kill—the penalty-killing was huge. A four-minute penalty kill in the third period. That was big time. You’ve got to dig in and just get it done, and everybody did, and Ponikarovsky was a part of that.”
“I think his ankle is good, he’s feeling good, Hopefully, this goal can really give him the confidence he needs to get going.”
In the NHL, players and coaches never use injuries as an excuse. Despite that, they have an impact, and Ponikarovsky’s injuries slowed him down.
“I think everybody’s got those stretches, and I had a couple of injuries at the start of the year that I’m recovering after,” said Ponikarovsky. “It’s a normal process, and I just had to go through some tough times. Today, everybody had a good effort and put a lot into the game. It’s a great win before the break, and everybody’s happy.”
The Kings are beginning to get more from Ponikarovsky, but they also need more from their best player, center Anze Kopitar, who scored two goals for Team Lidstrom in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game on January 30.
Although he leads the team in scoring with 16 goals and 33 assists for 49 points and is ranked 12th in scoring league-wide, the Kings need more goals from their most gifted offensive player.
“I would love to have Kopitar score more goals, and I thought he had a couple of great looks here tonight,” Murray noted after the win over the Sharks. “We need our best players to score goals and win games for us, absolutely.”
“I love the way he’s playing, though,” Murray added. “He’s got all the other parts of his game clicking. Really very responsible. He’s got great composure to hold onto pucks under pressure. Penalty-killing was an example of that. He was down on his knees, but still held onto the puck to clear it.”
Indeed, Kopitar has become an outstanding two-way forward, who plays well in all three zones. However, he has the speed, hands, strength, agility, a good, hard slap shot and blistering wrist shot to score a lot more goals, but he does not use those tools anywhere near enough to do so.
Kopitar is at his best when he is taking the puck strong to the net, going hard to the front of the net for the “dirty goals,” and when he uses his vastly underrated wrist shot. He is a gifted playmaker, but he would be a much more dangerous offensive threat if he looked to score more instead of virtually always looking to pass first.
“The finish part of it? Yeah, we look to him to be a finisher,” said Murray.
With the most crucial portion of their schedule immediately ahead of them, the Kings need “Kopitar The Finisher” now, more than ever.
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