EL SEGUNDO, CA — With less than 16 hours left, at the time of this writing, before the Los Angeles Kings open their first round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion in San Jose (7:00 PM PDT, televised in Southern California on Fox Sports West, nationally on Versus, and in Canada on TSN and RDS), one thing is clear…
…without star center Anze Kopitar, it will take a miracle for the Kings to win this series and advance to the second round.
Indeed, the loss of Kopitar, who is out until next season due to a broken right ankle with torn ligaments, opens up a huge, gaping hole in the Kings’ lineup. Not only does he lead the team in scoring, but he is also their best defensive forward. In fact, he has improved so much on the defensive side of the game that he is receiving serious consideration for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded each season to the National Hockey League’s top defensive forward.
But the Kings are not wallowing in the dumps because they are without their best player. Rather, they remain positive and are looking at their situation as a challenge.
“We know we’ve got a very hard opponent, one of the favorites coming into the playoffs,” said head coach Terry Murray. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’re going into this thing not being afraid to win. We’re going to play, compete, battle, and do the right stuff on every shift.”
“This series will be one of those times when you come through it and say, ‘man, we’re going to be a better team,’ because you’re going to play the games without Kopitar, your best player,” added Murray. “Some guys are going to be the ones who really stepped up and became better players.”
“I’m looking for guys to play the right way, with composure, making good decisions, moving the puck, having possession of the puck, and having it on your stick for longer periods of time than what it was last year.”
Facing division rival San Jose so often during the regular season certainly brings a great deal of familiarity with their opponent, and vice versa.
“We are pretty familiar with them, as they are with us,” said center Michal Handzus. “We know their strengths, and how they play. Now it’s up to us and how we match up, and how we get ready for them.”
“It’s going to be a good series,” said Murray. “Whenever you play your division [rival] six times, you know their tendencies, their habits, their good players, what their skilled players do. There’s going to be good reads in the checking part of the game, which is our strength. We’re going to have to be very good against a team which has a player like Joe Thornton in the lineup, and Patrick Marleau, who can really generate a lot of offense. We’re going to have to have great awareness whenever they’re on the ice.”
Speaking of last year, the Kings will get a bit of help from the fact that, unlike last season, only a handful of their players have not experienced the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Having gone through the playoffs last year is huge,” Murray stressed. “You can have meetings and talk about it as a coach, and explain what it is you’re going to see and what you’re going to feel, but you have to go through it. It was a great experience last year against one of the premier teams. You go to six games, you know how close it was. One play makes a difference in the outcome of a game. Now you have that understanding.”
“It’s the same kind of scenario today with San Jose,” Murray added. “They’re a team that’s been on the cusp for the past four or five years. You’ve got to play the game hard, play it the right way. Every play is going to really be important.”
The players pointed to their experience in last season’s playoffs as well.
“We had a lot of guys who had never played in the playoffs,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “Gaining that experience and having that pressure on us last year will really help us this year.”
“This is the fun part of the season here” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “There’s a lot of teams that aren’t playing, and we have a chance to play in the playoffs again. It’s easy to get up for. Last year, we were a young team, a lot of guys had never been in the playoffs before. Now we have a little bit more experience. We know what’s at stake.”
“You know what to expect, you know what kind of hockey it’s going to be,” said goaltender Jonathan Quick. “It’s a very exciting time of the year. There’s going to be nerves. It doesn’t matter if you’ve played ten years in the league. It’s going to be exciting. You know how the tempo is going to be, how big every play is, and how hard you have to fight.”
The Kings’ playoff experience should help them stay on an even keel when the going gets tough.
“I think the compete side of the game, the gritty part of the game, is going to be an area that you look at,” Murray noted. “When you go into the playoffs for the first time in the National Hockey League, it’s always pretty physical, and you can get pushed out, and becoming tentative and hesitant in your game.”
“But as you go through a series or two, you start to understand that no one’s picking on you, personally,” Murray added. “It’s just that whole attitude of hard play. It’s a much more physical, and mentally demanding game. Now you start to play with a higher level of confidence, knowing that you’ve been there before.”
Quick Might Have To Be Next Coming Of Georges Vezina
As noted in this space on April 13 (see Being Offensive Would Be A Good Thing For The Los Angeles Kings), the Kings scored just 2.55 goals per game, ranking 25th in the league, while their power play was 21st in the NHL, with a 16.1 percent rating.
On the other side of the red line, the Sharks scored 2.96 goals per game, ranking sixth in the NHL, and their power play clicked at a 23.5 percent rating, ranking second.
With the Kings having struggled to score goals all season long, they are going to have to rely on their defense and especially on Quick, who may have to stand on his head just to give the Kings a glimmer of hope.
Last season, Quick was nowhere near the top of his game in the second half of the season, and he struggled in the post-season. But he has played well lately, which bodes well heading into the playoffs.
“I feel good right now,” he said. “I’m not comparing it to a year ago. Right now, all I’m worried about is how I feel right now. I’m looking forward to the challenge ahead of us. I’m feeling good, physically and mentally.”
“He likes these types of pressure situations,” said Brown. “I think he thrives on them. If there’s one guy I’m not concerned about [in terms of] handling the pressure, it’s him. He’s always calm. If he lets in a goal, he comes back and makes 35 saves.”
Despite that, the last thing the Kings want to do is place all that weight on Quick’s shoulders. As such, they cannot afford a defensive lapse.
“[The coaches told] him in meetings that it’s not all going to fall all on the goaltender’s shoulders, that we have to play the team game,” said Murray. “It’s a matter of staying on the right side of the puck when you don’t have possession of it. That covers a lot of areas, but that is so important against an attack team that comes with four or five on every rush. They’re a real good counter team, and, individually, they’ve got some guys who can do some things and dangle you one-on-one, so it’s important to play on the right side of the puck.”
“We’ve got to be good in front of him, but if he plays the way he has been playing, we’re going to be fine on the defensive side, and that gives us a chance in the game,” said Brown. “If we’re not playing good defense, we’re not going to have a chance. We’ve got to take care of our own end first, and then, find ways to score goals.”
“They have a highly explosive offensive team over there,” added Brown. “If we’re not playing good in our end of the ice, our chances are not good.”
Scoring some goals would also help relieve some of the pressure on Quick. One way to do that could be to simplify things.
“The one thing we can do is simplify our game,” said Brown. “It’s one thing when a highly-skilled team wants to pass the puck to the net. We’re not that team. We tend to pass on shooting opportunities way too much.”
“[San Jose goaltender Antti] Niemi’s a good goalie, but you can find a lot of rebounds on him,” added Brown. “We have to get traffic around the net and shoot the puck. We can’t be looking for a back door tap-in. We’ve got to get the puck to the net and get bodies there. That’s the only way our team is going to score.”
“Every once in awhile, you’re going to score a pretty goal. But we don’t score a lot of goals, so we’ve got to get the dirty ones.”
“It’s the same way we’ve been playing all year,” said Quick. “We’ve got to get dirty goals. Even if we had [Kopitar and right wing Justin Williams] in the lineup, it [wouldn’t] change the way we play our game. It’s the same system. We need guys to chip in, and score by committee. That’s something we’ve been doing all year.”
The Kings must find a way to score more goals, but they cannot afford to do so by cutting corners defensively.
“It’s really about playing our defensive game,” Brown emphasized. “We haven’t scored a lot of goals all year, so we can’t expect to win games, 5-4, in this series. We need to play a really strong defensive game, and find ways to score some timely goals.”
“When you get to the playoffs, every once in awhile, you see those high scoring games,” Brown added. “But more of the games are 2-1, 3-2, and that suits our style. We’ve got to find a way to score goals. The power play needs to be better than it was during the regular season, but we can’t get away from our defensive zone coverage. We’ve been one of the best defensive teams the last two years. We have to continue that.”
Williams To Return For Game 1
Williams, who suffered a dislocated right shoulder on March 21, should give the Kings a much-needed boost when he returns to the lineup in Game 1.
Third on the team with 22 goals and 35 assists for 57 points in 73 games this season, Williams had been skating and participating in drills near the end of recent practices. But the last couple of days, despite wearing a gray, non-contact jersey, Williams has been participating in full practices.
“It’s amazing what hockey players go through emotionally and mentally whenever you get to the playoffs,” said Murray. “They want to play, no matter what the scenario might be. There’s a lot of injuries that guys will play through.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that Williams wanted to give it a try,” added Murray. “I think his injury was just so severe last year that he lost too much strength, too much power to be able to get back to full strength and play the game the way he wanted to play.”
“This is totally different. He’s been working out from the day he injured himself, doing the aerobic, the power, the strength work off the ice. He’s been skating quite a bit recently. He didn’t let his body get away from that kind of conditioning level that’s important to step in and play again.”
After practice on April 13, Williams declared himself ready to return.
“I told the coach that I’m a ‘go’ for tomorrow night,” he said. “I should be in the lineup. I’m as comfortable as I’ll ever be. I’m confident that I’m going to make an impact, and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore.”
“Everyone plays with injuries at this time of year,” he added. “Mine seems to be more public knowledge, I guess. No one is 100 percent right now. They’ve got guys on their team who are banged up, too. I seem to have a little bit of experience in coming back from injuries, and trying to come back mentally, stronger than when you left.”
“I haven’t been out for very long. I’m confident that I’m going to be fine out there, so I’m going to give it a go.”
Williams emphasized that he is not rushing back simply because he knows the Kings need him with Kopitar unavailable.
“It had nothing to do with Kopitar being out,” said Williams. “Even if he was playing, I’d be doing the same thing. I’m an important part of this team, offensively, and if I feel I can help the team, which I know I can, I’m going to tell the coach that I can play.”
“He said he wanted to go, and that’s great news,” said Murray. “We met yesterday after practice. That was really our first conversation about how you’re doing, are you thinking about getting back into the lineup, are you thinking about playing, how are you doing emotionally, more importantly than anything else, because I know that he’s been cleared, physically, by our team doctors.”
“That’s the hurdle you always have to go through as an injured player,” added Murray. “He said, at that time, that he wanted to get through today’s practice. He gave me some feedback on how that went right away, and I jumped in on that. I said, ‘it has to be tomorrow [Wednesday]. I don’t want to wait until the morning skate. You know your body, and you’ll know after the practice tomorrow.’”
Murray had some prerequisites for Williams’ return.
“It was very important for him to understand my view on this thing, that he’s ready to come in and play the way he has all season long, with the puck possession game,” Murray explained. “He’s a player who does some real good things below the hashmarks with his little dangles that he can do, and create some scoring chances on his own, playing with his line mates and making good plays. So it was important that he have that as a solid decision in his own mind, that he can do this stuff.”
“He’ll have an impact,” Murray elaborated. “He’s an offensive player who can hold onto pucks in the offensive zone. That’s a part of our game, that cycle game. We take a lot of pride in that area of the offensive part of the game, and he’s going to add to it because of his creativity.”
Williams’ teammates are glad to have him back.
“Our offense has been struggling, and our power play hasn’t been great,” said Doughty. He’s a key part to our power play and our offense. He’ll play a huge part and help us get through the series.”
“Offensively, he’s been one of our best players, consistently, all year,” said Brown. “We’ve been struggling to score goals, he’ll definitely have an impact on that.”
“He’s one of our top players,” said Handzus. “He had a great season, so it would be great [to have him back in the lineup], but we can’t look at it that way. It would be a big bonus if he comes back, but we’re still a very good team without him. We can’t think that if he comes back, we’re going to score three or four goals a game. He’s going to help us out, but we have to play our system.”
The Sharks are certain to test Williams’ right shoulder at their earliest opportunity. But he is not concerned.
“If they’re gunning for me, great,” said Williams. “That leaves someone else open. But playoffs are so intense. Every game is important, so you’re not thinking about anything out there. You’re just thinking about playing. I’m sure they’re going to play me hard, just like anyone else.”
What To Expect
Despite their heavy underdog status, the Kings flew into San Jose on Wednesday afternoon with a very positive attitude.
“There’s always a great sense of anticipation whenever you get to this time,” said Murray. “The excitement, the adrenaline starts going because you know it starts tomorrow. There’s a great attitude. The attention to the meetings that we’ve had today, the questions that were asked—everybody’s eager and excited.”
“We’re fine with [being underdogs],” said Brown. “San Jose has won our division four years in a row. At the end of the day, it’s just a playoff series. There are upsets. What other people think about us is irrelevant. It’s more about what we believe about ourselves. If we have the thought process of going in there and playing our game, games are there to be won.”
“We’re in the playoffs,” added Brown. “It’s a new season. Everyone can hit the reset button. All of the 82 games we just played are now irrelevant. It’s a new opportunity for all of us.”
That new opportunity comes down to this: the Kings must build confidence and put some doubts into the minds of the Sharks by winning Game 1 if they are to have any hope of winning this series. If the Kings fail to do that, the odds against them become even more astronomical.
“It’s a big one,” said Doughty. “Even though we split that series [in the regular season], they’re a way different team at home than they are on the road. I’m pretty confident that, if we get a couple of wins in their barn, we’re fully confident that when we come back [home], we’re going to take those games.”
“It’s a huge series, we’re excited to play them in the first round, and we can’t wait to get started.”
As positive and as excited as the Kings may be, as stated earlier, without Kopitar, the Kings are going to need a miracle, one nearly as astonishing as the Miracle on Manchester, when, on April 10, 1982, at the Forum in Inglewood, California [the Kings’ first permanent home arena], the Kings found themselves looking up at a 5-0 deficit after two periods against the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in Game 3 of their first round playoff series. But the Kings came roaring back to score five straight goals in the third period and then win it in overtime, 6-5.
Without that miracle, the Sharks should dispatch the Kings in five games. A four-game sweep would not be surprising, either.
Raw audio interviews from the practice on April 13, 2011
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Jonathan Quick (2:33)
Justin Willliams (2:05)
Dustin Brown (4:19)
Terry Murray (7:12)
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