LOS ANGELES — Four days after the Los Angeles Kings were eliminated in six games from the first round of 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks, the Kings dressing room at Staples Center has probably been cleaned out, not to be used (at least, not by the Kings), until next season.
Despite losing in six games, the Kings came close to, not just extending the series to a seventh game, but to advancing to the second round. Indeed, when they were on top of their game, their forecheck, defensive zone coverage and goaltending gave the Sharks fits.
“We had opportunities to win this series,” Kings right wing and team captain Dustin Brown lamented. “We had a 4-0 lead at home in Game 3, and two other overtime games. We were right there.”
“The difference between winning and losing is small,” Brown added. “Not winning that game was a big part of the series. We had a good opportunity to finish the game off, but we didn’t do it.”
The Kings were certainly off their game in Game 3, in which they took a 4-0 lead into the second period, only to suffer one of the biggest let downs in Stanley Cup Playoff history, allowing five goals in the period. That led to an embarrassing 6-5 overtime loss, one that not only gave the Sharks life, but it helped push them back onto the right track.
“It was 4-0 in our opponent’s first home game of a series,” said Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. “It could very easily be 2-1 [in favor of the Kings], and you don’t know what you’re going to get in Game 4. It could be 3-1, and then you’re really scrambling.”
“That was a huge turning point for us,” added McLellan. “I think we woke up a little bit at that point. We decided that we needed to play a certain way. It still wasn’t smooth, but that definitely was [the turning point in the series].”
After that game, the Kings were all saying the right things.
“We’re a team that’s struggling on the defensive side of the puck,” said Kings right wing Justin Williams. “That [performance was] certainly not what we pride ourselves on. Everybody wants to win, but doing it smartly out there, and within the system is how you’re best going to help the team.”
“We haven’t lost our poise,” added Williams. “We’re a damned good hockey club. It’s digging in come playoff time. Too much work has gone into this to let it just skate away.”
But letting it skate away is exactly what the Kings did by straying away from their game during the majority of the series, committing one turnover after another, often failing to get the puck deep into the San Jose zone, and frequently blowing defensive zone coverages.
“The difference was our own play in terms of managing the puck,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “That was it here tonight [in Game 6], and looking back to the losses we had in the series. The three overtime losses, three games at home.”
“That’s why I called a time out midway through the first period,” added Murray. “We probably had 15 turnovers to that point.”
The turnovers caused a cascading effect that rippled through the Kings system and structure like an earthquake.
Make that an earthquake of epic proportions, one that caused their collapse, especially in their own zone.
“Our defensive game was not there in the middle of this series,” Brown noted. “They have a good team, especially on the offensive side of the puck. When we’re not on our game defensively, they’re going to [be able to] execute.”
“Mental mistakes in our defensive zone was the number one thing for us,” Brown added. “[Kings goaltender Jonathan] Quick let in twelve goals [total for Games 3 and 4], and I don’t think one of them was a goal he could’ve stopped. That’s uncharacteristic of this team, to let in that many goals, regardless of whether we were on the road or at home.”
But it was the turnovers high in the San Jose zone and in the neutral zone that started the collapse.
“The thing that bothers me the most right now is our own play,” Murray lamented. “That was very out of character—the way we played in a couple of games, and I’m talking about the fundamentals that they’ve been practicing for the last three years—breakouts, counters, puck possession plays that should be executed 99 percent of the time. We just failed to do it.”
“Overall, we had far too many turnovers when we had the opportunity to get it deep,” Murray emphasized. “We’re already over the red line, we’re already in the neutral zone, and we try to make that one extra play which you just can’t do in the early part of the game when they’re revved up. They’ll come right back at you, and you end up spending extended time trying to defend. It makes it a long night when you’re playing with that kind of an attitude.”
Also contributing to the collapse was the Kings’ anemic-all-season-long power play, even though they scored twice on four power plays in Game 6.
But they didn’t even come close to scoring on a five-minute major power play that extended for 1:37 into overtime.
That gave the high-powered Sharks the opportunity they needed, and star center Joe Thornton wasted little time, scoring just 2:22 into overtime, taking advantage of yet another glaring defensive blunder by the Kings, one that eliminated them from the playoffs.
“That’s the critical moment in the game,” Murray said of the major power play. “I thought we had a chance with about 17 seconds left in the game. There was a celebration going on, people were throwing their arms in the air, I thought it was over. But again, that’s a missed opportunity.”
“There’s a lot of young players playing on the power play, and they’re going to be better at the end of the day because of the experience they went through this year, certainly, just looking at the playoffs against one of the premier teams in the game,” Murray added. “Things did not work out the way we wanted. Players will be better next year, and we’ll have better execution on the power play.”
Murray, of course, has little choice but to express optimism. But even he knows that his team needs some additional help up front and for defenseman Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson to improve for the Kings to see any improvement on the power play, and even in five-on-five and even strength situations.
One bright spot for the Kings during the series with the Sharks was the play of forwards Kyle Clifford, Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds, who combined for six goals and seven assists for 13 points, with Clifford leading the team in playoff scoring.
Although this bodes well for next season and beyond, the fact that third line players led the team in playoff scoring only illustrates the lack of offensive depth and firepower that plagued the Kings all season long.
Not only that, without star center Anze Kopitar, their top defensive forward who was in the conversation this season for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded each season to the National Hockey League’s top defensive forward, the Kings had a tough time matching up against the Sharks’ top lines, featuring Dany Heatley, Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Devin Setoguchi.
Murray was often forced to send the Clifford-Richardson-Simmonds line onto the ice against these lines, and despite their offensive production, in the end, they were overmatched.
“You’re talking about youth,” said Murray. “They had some great games. They had a hell of a series. There’s guys scoring huge goals. But now, you get into extending the series here to six and now you’re trying to get it to seven, maybe there’s a little bit too much coming at them—too intense, trying to sort things out and you get caught.”
The line earned a combined -10 plus/minus rating in Game 6, with Richardson being on the ice for all four San Jose goals.
“That’s another learning moment,” Murray noted.
Speaking of Kopitar, Murray was not about to use his absence as an excuse.
“[Injuries are] just part of the game, that’s how it is,” he said. “You’re going to lose players. Key guys, role players. Players get hurt. You’re going to have to find a way to get it done, and that’s what we have to figure out.”
“You’ve got to move by that kind of stuff,” he added. “If you start to feel sorry for yourself when it comes to injuries, you might never break through as a pro team. There’s no sympathy there. Nothing is needed from anybody to say that it’s too bad. To hell with that.”
“The guys need to step up a little bit higher to do the job, and that, I hope will come now that we’ve gone through it.”
Having gone through it—Murray expects the added experience to pay dividends next season.
“We’ve grown a lot, we’ve matured, the culture is pushing along the right way,” said Murray. “Losing in six games is disappointing, for sure. You’d like to go further, and I think if we just managed the puck a little bit better, that probably comes along with experience that’s lacking at critical times. We could’ve pushed that team further.”
“I’m very pleased with the growth of individuals, the growth of the team, and, again, what we talked about when we first got here to start this thing off, just to change the culture, I really like where this is heading.”
To their credit, the Kings did prove the pundits (including yours truly) wrong by extending the series past four or five games.
“A lot of people doubted us coming in, a lot of people doubted us after we went down, 3-1, that we’d even get to a Game 6,” said Brown. “That’s the great thing about this team, and why I’m happy to be a part of it. Not one guy in here cares about what anybody else thinks about us.”
But, in the end, that is just a moral victory, something the Kings have had to settle for far too often.
“If we’re not celebrating at the end of the year here, it’s a disappointment,” Brown stressed.
That’s a start. Now the Kings need a lot more finish.
Raw audio interviews following Game 6
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Dustin Brown (4:18)
Drew Doughty (0:48)
Terry Murray (10:08)
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan (5:46)
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