LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — While earning a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on December 1 at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Kings paid a heavy price, and will face heavy adversity for the first time this season.
During that game, the Kings lost veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell during the first minute of the game. He was joined in the trainer’s room by center Mike Richards, who took a blow to the head late in the second period from Panthers’ forward Sean Bergenheim.
Mitchell (lower body injury) is expected to miss at least the next two games, while Richards, who has what is officially being called an upper body injury, has been placed on injured reserve.
During practice on December 2, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi indicated that Richards underwent tests that are all part of the concussion protocol mandated by the National Hockey League.
In other words, Richards suffered a concussion.
Mitchell and Richards are two key cogs in the machine for the Kings, and will not be easily replaced.
“Those are two big pieces for our team,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “It’s an opportunity for guys to step up and fill a void.”
“Guys just have to play,” said head coach Terry Murray, who was forced to juggle his line combinations to fill the voids in his lineup. “There’s no magic to that formula. There’s an opportunity that opens up for some players to get back into the lineup, and other guys need to take on a little more of a workload, especially on Mitchell’s side of it, he’s a big penalty-killer for us.”
“Other guys are going to get an opportunity,” added Murray. “It’s a good thing to see. It’s good for other players to get put into situations that gives them an opportunity to improve their game, and to contribute to the team, because as you get to the deeper part of the season, inevitably, there’s a call to duty in those situations. So [now], they’ve been there, they know what to do, and they react the right way.”
Brown stressed that no one player will be able to replace what Richards contributed.
“We’re going to have to [pick up the slack] by committee,” he said. “Mike Richards is a big part of our team. He’s contributed in different ways every night, so it’s a matter of other guys stepping up.”
“It’s just like last year, with [center Anze] Kopitar going down [late last season],” he added. “He was a big part of our team, but other guys stepped up, and we found ways to win games. We’re going to need more of that.”
Brown, who shined on left wing against the Panthers, scoring a goal and barely missing a second one, clanking a wrist shot from the slot off the left goal post later in the game, is being forced to move back to right wing due to the loss of Richards.
“He had some good looks there, coming off that left wing side,” said Murray. “He does enjoy it. He likes that move, and it gets him to that kind of attack more consistently. He’s sending me a message, I guess.”
“I’ve had that conversation with Brown in the past,” added Murray. “He enjoys that, and you can see why from the goal he scored last night. He gets a lot of good looks.”
“I prefer the left side, offensively,” Brown said. “I’ll play left or right. I felt really good on the left side. But with [veteran left wing Dustin] Penner coming into the lineup, I go back to the right [side]. We’ll see what we can do.”
Murray is not worried about Brown causing confusion for his line mates if he launches an attack from left wing.
“The one thing about playing with Kopitar and [veteran left wing Simon] Gagne—both are very intelligent players, and if Brown breaks out with possession and ends up attacking from the left side, I think those guys are very capable of reading and making the adjustments on their positions,” said Murray.
But without Richards, who leads the Kings in goals (eleven) and is second in points (twenty), for a team that has struggled to score goals all season long, having other guys step up will be crucial. That means the Kings will need wingers Justin Williams and Gagne to find their way back onto the scoresheet.
Murray indicated that Williams, who is mired in a 16-game goal scoring drought, and has scored just once in his last 21 games, is gripping his stick too tight.
“‘Pressing’ is the right word [to describe Williams’ recent play],” Murray explained. “He really wants to score, he wants to help the team on that side of the game. But he’s still playing. He’s holding onto the puck, he’s making plays, he’s attacking, he’s doing a lot of good things in the game.”
“Sometimes, you just have to back off—take a step back a little bit, and things will start to come your way,” Murray elaborated. “It’ll come through. He’s a player who can score. He’s shown that throughout his career. He just has to keep going, keep putting pucks to the net, and that’s the one thing I like that’s happening right now. He’s been putting more pucks to the net in the last two or three games.”
Indeed, Williams has started to get quality scoring chances, which is considerably more than one can say about Gagne, who is in the midst of a six-game goal scoring slump, having become a perimeter player in recent games.
“He’s a very good skater, he’s a great player when he’s moving and skating hard, and I think that’s the one thing that would open up some ice for him—get moving,” Murray stressed. “There’s times right now, as a team, we’re getting pucks on our sticks, and it’s on our sticks too long. We’re standing still.”
“With Gagne, that part of it can turn around very quickly,” Murray added. “He’s a world-class player, in my mind, and I’m looking for a big performance [this] afternoon against the Montreal Canadiens.”
Drewiske Finally Gets A Chance
Defenseman Davis Drewiske, who has been on the outside looking in for what seems like an eternity, will be in the lineup against the Canadiens this afternoon, alongside veteran defenseman Matt Greene.
After being a healthy scratch, game in, and game out, maintaining the right frame of mind has to be difficult. Nevertheless, Drewiske has continued to work hard in practice.
“I’ve done a lot of work to try to stay ready,” he said. “I’m anxious to get back in there.”
After playing in just 81 regular season games since the start of the 2009-10 season (he also played in 17 games during the 2008-09 season), some have probably forgotten Drewiske’s style of play.
“I just try to make a good first pass, and be hard and physical in the corners,” he said.
For any NHL player, spending most of his time watching rather than playing has to be incredibly frustrating. Nevertheless, Drewiske seems to have kept things together.
“It is what it is,” said Drewiske. “I just control what I can. That’s my attitude. Some days are easier than others, but I just try to stay positive.”
“You just try to be a good pro, and work hard every day,” added Drewiske. “The real battle is staying connected to the game, and everything else that’s going on.”
Penner Returns Under The Microscope
As reported earlier, Richards’ absence means opportunities for other forwards to step up and contribute. One such player is Penner, who was activated from injured reserve, and will play on the second line, with Williams and center Jarret Stoll.
Penner reported to the Kings’ training camp in vastly improved physical condition, stronger and lighter, having lost 18 pounds. But several injuries, including a groin strain and a variety of leg injuries, slowed him down early in the season.
But after recovering from those injuries, Penner looked like he was getting his game together, only to suffer a broken knuckle on his left (shooting) hand, forcing him to miss the Kings’ last eight games.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said. “It’s been a tough start with all the injuries. Now I’m feeling as good as I have since being here.”
“Penner is ready to go,” Murray noted. “He’s in the best condition since he’s been an LA King. He’s been through three weeks of hard work, and he’s poured a lot into it.”
Murray indicated that Penner is now better positioned, in terms of his physical conditioning and recovery from injuries, to contribute.
“He’s in an athletic position when he’s skating now,” Murray explained. “In the past, post-training camp even, he’s out of the lineup with a groin pull after a couple of games in Europe, then he has the [leg injuries], so there was a little bit of the straight-legged, walking around the ice, more than pushing and jumping into the play, anticipating things.”
“Now, we’re seeing an athletic player who is pursuing pucks and attacking with the puck,” Murray elaborated. “There’s a big, big difference in his body language now [compared] to what I saw early in the training camp.”
“It’s a good opportunity for Penner coming back. He’s very hungry. He wants to show that he’s a major contributor to this team, so the opportunity starts [on Saturday against Montreal].”
Penner knows that he has to move his feet to get himself into position for quality scoring chances, and that he has to be better with the puck along the boards and in the corners.
“The last two games before I got hurt, I was getting my chances,” he noted. “I was around the puck, and I was in and around every goal [against Nashville on November 8]. I think I’ve just got to hang onto the puck, and be more determined with it.”
“With guys my size, who can handle the puck, you [want to] bring a [second] guy towards you,” he added. “You draw one in, and then you pass the puck. The problem for guys like me who are playing poorly, you get the puck down low, and then you throw it away, or just cycle it to an open space, instead of [drawing] contact, and then giving it to a [teammate] who’s open and has speed.”
This season has presented Penner with very different challenges this season due to the injuries he has suffered.
“Every season poses its own challenges in its own unique way, and this season has been a lot different, in that aspect, as far as what I’ve had to go through, even after all the work I put in during the off-season,” said Penner. “One thing about adversity is that when you succeed after it, it’s that much sweeter, so I’m looking forward to getting back to where I want to be, and where I should be.”
“After everything I’ve been though, and the hard work I put in, it’ll be that much sweeter.”
Penner knows that given his non-performance to this point in the season, he will be under the microscope as soon as he steps onto the ice for his first shift against the Canadiens, and that even more pressure to finally start contributing will be placed squarely on his shoulders with Richards out of the lineup.
Despite that, he is not at all fazed by it.
“[A lot of the pressure will] fall on me, but I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I’ve dealt with pressure for my entire life.”
System Could Help Kings Weather Storm
The loss of Mitchell, a solid defensive defenseman who plays a lot of minutes on the penalty-kill, and without Richards, who was getting the job done in all three zones on the ice, and in every situation, could be disastrous for the Kings, as they lose two of their best defensive players, and one of their top scorers.
Although critics claim that the Kings’ system stifles offense, that system is exactly what might help them weather the storm created by the loss of Mitchell and Richards.
Indeed, their system, which stresses defense, grit, and playing a solid, disciplined game without the puck, could help the low-scoring Kings remain competitive…if they stick to it.
“We’re a team that has an identity as a gritty team, and as one that can play well without the puck,” said Murray. “We have good structure, and there’s good buy-in from everybody, and that’s the game that you have to play all of the time.”
“When you lose an offensive player who’s been carrying the load here in the last five or six games, then you need to look to structure and system, and get the puck in the hands of some other players out there,” added Murray. “Let them go do their thing.”
Raw Audio Interviews From Florida Panthers vs. Los Angeles Kings, December 1, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Jonathan Quick (1:19)
>Dustin Brown (2:52)
Terry Murray (3:28)
Raw Audio Interviews From Los Angeles Kings Practice, December 2, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Jonathan Bernier (1:40)
>Davis Drewiske (2:23)
Dustin Brown (2:00)
>Dustin Penner (2:24)
Terry Murray (12:47)
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