LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings are twenty games into the 2011-12 National Hockey League season, and their 10-7-3 record, good for 23 points, has them in fourth place in the Pacific Division, two points behind the first place San Jose Sharks.
In the more important Western Conference standings, which determine playoff seedings, the Kings are in eighth place, and would qualify for post-season play if the playoffs were to start today. Further, they find themselves just two points out of third place, and four points behind the conference-leading Minnesota Wild.
Coming into this season, the Kings were expected to be one of the best teams in the league, and even though only four points separates the Kings, who are the 16th place team in the league, from the best team in the league, the Wild, the Kings are not living up to expectations.
Case in point: the Kings have six wins against teams ahead of them in the standings, but also have four regulation losses and one shootout loss to teams below them. Add to that the fact that the Kings played poorly and did not look all that competitive in losses to Buffalo (October 8), New Jersey (October 25), Edmonton (November 3), San Jose (November 7), Vancouver (November 10) and Detroit (November 19), a strong case can be made that although they are a better team on paper compared to last season, so far, they still have been unable to rid themselves of a problem that has plagued them in recent years.
Indeed, they continue to be highly inconsistent, unable to put together significant winning streaks without suffering losses, even bad losing streaks. Too often, the defeats fall into the “embarrassing” category.
Such was the case on November 19, when the Kings hosted the vaunted Detroit Red Wings, in a matinee affair at Staples Center.
Despite opening the scoring on a shorthanded breakaway goal by center Mike Richards, the Kings were never in this game. The Red Wings, led by Pavel Datsyuk’s two goals, skated circles around the listless, lifeless Kings, who suffered an embarrassing 4-1 defeat.
“We just didn’t make any plays out there,” said center Anze Kopitar. “Against a team like that, it’s tough to chase the puck all the time. You can go down the list, and nobody was really moving the puck at all.”
“They had a bad game up in San Jose,” added Kopitar. “We knew that, and we knew they would come at us strong. Good players are going to make good plays, and [today], we made it easy on them by not making plays on our side.”
As reported earlier, the Kings took a 1-0 lead on Richards’ shorthanded breakaway goal in the first period. But they turned right around and let the Red Wings right back into the game, allowing a power play goal just 37 seconds later.
“We never got our legs going after that,” said head coach Terry Murray. “The one thing that disappointed me more than anything was that we were not skating anywhere near where we skated in the last three games. They recognized it, and took advantage.”
As Kopitar pointed out, the Kings were always a step or two behind the Red Wings.
“They started to feed off of the turnovers, some of the decisions that we made to give the puck back to them,” Murray lamented. “They’re covering you over the top so well that, as a veteran hockey club, they came right after us with a lot of momentum. By the end of the second period, they had the game going the way they wanted, and we ended up chasing it.”
“We were chasing the game,” Murray added. “They moved it very well, [but] they moved it, a lot of the time, off of our turnovers. That was the thing that upset me over the course of the game, as we got to the end of the second period. We were too far above it. Against a team like Detroit, who plays over the top of you, you’ve got to bring everybody back. You’ve got to stay low, and make those little hand-off, support plays. Tonight, it was one pass, and we thought we were done. We were resting when it should’ve been, ‘I’ve-got-to-stay-involved-I’ve-got-to-get-it-back-and-maybe-I-have-to-bring-it-out-the-other-side.’”
The Kings were so out of sync that they could not even execute their breakout plays.
“We started going back behind our net three or four times [on breakouts],” Murray noted. “When you start going from [one defenseman to another], turning back, and bringing it back a second time, you’re actually screwing everybody up.”
“The forwards think it’s going [up ice], but now they’ve got to stop, and come back to the other side,” Murray added. “Now it becomes a stop-and-start game from the middle of the ice to the boards, and that’s too hard. It’s impossible to play that way. That just highlights to me that we brought all those issues on ourselves.”
Penalty-Killing Is A Drag
No team wants to be in a position where they have to kill a penalty, and players would much rather play during even strength or power play situations.
That said, the sub-title above does not mean what you probably think.
Rather, it refers to the fact that, unlike last season, when their penalty-killing was a major strength, penalty-killing has been a drag on the Kings’ fortunes this season.
Last season, the Kings were fourth in the NHL with an 85.5 percent rating on the penalty-kill. But this season, they have dropped all the way down to 18th (through games played on November 21), with a poor 81.2 percent rating.
Poor decisions, blown coverages, and bad luck have hurt the Kings in shorthanded situations, and all that came to pass during their loss to the Red Wings.
“The first goal they got to tie it up, two guys fell down,” said Murray. “That opened up the blue line, and they just started pounding pucks [on net]. The other one was that we just got caught out of position. We started chasing behind the net, and the middle of the ice opens up again.”
Getting the penalty-killing up to speed will be a priority for the Kings going forward.
“We’ve been giving up penalty-kill situations where the other team has capitalized,” Murray noted. “That’s something we’ve got to tighten down here because, as I’ve said many times, the power play can you win a game, but penalty-killing can lose you a game, and we’re getting ourselves into tough situations on the penalty-kill right now.”
“There isn’t one thing,” Murray added. “The details are talked about. I think there are some nights where we are very good on the penalty-kill, and other nights, we get caught out of position. Against a team like [Detroit], if you’re out of position by a foot, or two feet, they’re going to find that seam pass, which they did on their [power play] goal in the second period, off the back door.”
“It’s not a big area that we have to correct, but it’s a detail that has to be addressed.”
Fatigue Is A Factor
No player or coach will admit that fatigue is a factor in the outcome of a game. Although they may admit to being tired, they will usually say that all teams have to deal with that at some point, or that they just have to suck it up and overcome adversity, or something like that.
But one can always tell when Murray knows fatigue was a factor in his team’s performance. He never addresses the issue directly, but he will usually give his team the next day off.
“We’ve got to get back to playing our game,” said Murray. “We need a day off. We’ve had two big games against Anaheim, so we’ll take [Sunday] off, and re-group back at practice on Monday [November 21].”
“We’ll get together Monday, before practice, and we’ll talk about as much about Detroit as we will about our game,” added Murray. “We’ll highlight the fact that you’ve got to get into position put pucks to the net, start hanging around the blue paint, and good things will happen for you.”
More Needed From Doughty
A lot of reasons for the Kings being consistently inconsistent this season have been bounced around. Some has been rational, logical and well-supposed by facts, while the rest has been rather irrational, highly emotional, and is rarely based on anything even closely resembling fact, or reality, for that matter.
Totally overlooked by virtually everyone is defenseman Drew Doughty, who has been mostly invisible this season, with just two goals and five assists for seven points in 15 games.
Doughty missed five games due to a right shoulder injury, which certainly didn’t help. But even though he has denied that it is a factor, missing the Kings training camp due to his contract holdout has had the expected negative impact on Doughty’s play.
“I’m not scratching my head [about Doughty’s slow start],” said Murray. “I want him to get going. I want him to give us more from the back end. The pair [of Doughty and Jack Johnson] should be a pair that can really take on a lot of that responsibility, [through] puck possession, and creating opportunities for themselves, and for the line that they’re on the ice with.”
“I just think there’s still a little bit of a hangover from missing all of the training camp,” added Murray. “But now we’re twenty games in. It’s important that we find the answer, and that we get him going. [He] just has to start getting pucks through. Keep it simple, don’t push things. Take a step back a little bit, at times.”
Although Doughty seems to be better at getting pucks to the net from the point this season, the Kings are still struggling to find the shooting lanes.
“We’re not tentative, but I think we’re getting a lot of [shots] blocked, and that’s because of the lack of movement,” Murray explained. “When you get the puck on the blue line, today, everyone’s in the shot lanes. You’ve got to move yourself, or you’re going to have to move down to the half-wall and attack from the seam.”
“The guys we have on the blue line, like Jack, Doughty and [Slava] Voynov, those guys have good agility. They just have to get into better lanes themselves by moving their feet, and either pulling or pushing the puck. You’re just looking to get six-to-eight inches away from that player who’s in the lane, and get it through. I think we’re standing still right now.”
Raw Audio Interviews from Detroit Red Wings vs. Los Angeles Kings, November 19, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Anze Kopitar (2:12)
Jonathan Quick (1:17)
Terry Murray (8:13)
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