LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings have struggled through much of the final month of 2011, losing five straight games from December 3 – 13, and winning just twice from December 1 – December 17.
Indeed, things have looked pretty bleak with an anemic offense, the worst in the National Hockey League. But, somehow, the Kings never dropped out of the picture in the Western Conference standings, and after handing the high-powered Vancouver Canucks a 4-1 drubbing at Staples Center in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, they not only ended the year on a high note, but…hold onto your party hats…they now find themselves in sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division and third place in the Western Conference.
Although the game turned out to be a decisive victory for the Kings, they got off to a very sloppy start, with two blatant turnovers, the second one leading directly to a glorious scoring chance that Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa converted at 3:06 of the first period, blasting a one-timer past Kings netminder Jonathan Quick from the high slot.
But the Kings quickly settled down and took over the game, dominating play at times, especially in the first period.
Kings forward Brad Richardson scored his third goal of the season at the 9:13 mark, picking up a loose puck in front, and lifting it over the left leg pad of Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, taking advantage of some lazy defensive play by the Canucks in front of their net.
The Canucks outshot the Kings in the second period, 14-12, but do not let that deceive you, as their quality scoring chances were few and very far between.
Approaching the midpoint of the period, there was a bit of a scrum to the right of Luongo, causing him to lose his stick behind the net. A teammate pushed it back to him in the crease, but before he could grab it, the puck went to right point where Kings defenseman Matt Greene quickly fired a one-timer, beating Luongo just inside the right goal post at the 8:20 mark for his second goal of the season, giving the Kings a 2-1 lead.
Kings center Anze Kopitar ended a career-high 17-game goal scoring slump at the 13:08 mark, converting a pass from right wing Justin Williams on a three-on-two rush. On the play, Kopitar easily skated around Bieksa from the left circle, moving in front of the net. Luongo tried to poke the puck away from Kopitar, but missed. Kopitar put the puck on his backhand, and moved across the low slot. With Luongo down and out, he lifted the puck into the net from along the goal line, about two feet to the right of the crease for his 11th goal of the season.
“It was a quick three-on-two, and Williams made a great play on the blue line,” Kopitar explained. “I was able to stay onside, and I made up my mind before that I was going to pull it to my backhand. I was able to stretch it out pretty long, and I was able to put it in.”
“The whole way, I was going to my backhand,” Kopitar elaborated. “I just didn’t know if I was going to slide it five-hole, because he always stretches out. I just figured I’d drag it a little more, and try to put it over his pad.”
Williams scored his fifth goal of the season on the power play at 9:33 of the third period, deflecting a point shot by Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, to close out the scoring.
“The power play [goal] in the third period—it was still a two-goal game,” Kopitar noted. “They didn’t play their big boys after that, so it was a huge goal for us.”
With the win, the Kings are 6-1-2 in their last nine games, and 4-0-2 since Darryl Sutter took over as head coach, and since center Mike Richards returned to the lineup. The Kings also have points in a season-high seven consecutive games, with a 5-0-2 record.
“It was a huge win for us,” said Kopitar. “We needed those two points, and to end the year on a good note.”
Whether you credit the arrival of Sutter, or the return of Richards to the lineup (both happened at the same time), the Kings are moving in the right direction again. But they cannot afford to rest on their laurels.
“It’s still a work-in-progress, but we’ve been having some success over the last little bit, with Darryl coming in,” said Greene. “This was a good game for us, but we’ve got to keep rolling. We can’t rest on this game.”
As reported earlier, Kopitar finally got the monkey off his back, ending his long goal scoring drought.
“[The goal] was big,” he said. “When you go through struggles like that, it always feels good when you get it off your back, and there was no better place and time to do it than, I guess, [against] Vancouver.”
“I had that feeling [that he would score in this game], and I was feeling pretty good,” he added. “I was playing decent—it wasn’t like I didn’t getting any chances. I’ve been getting a lot of shots lately. I just couldn’t find the back of the net. Tonight, I just went in there, and did my thing, and it worked for me.”
“He scored a big goal, so that makes him feel good again,” said Sutter. “He’s been struggling to score, but he’s getting lots of shots. That’s what we’ve been trying to reinforce, keep shooting.”
Even though Kopitar was not putting the puck into the net, he was still very effective, doing everything but score.
“[The media] has been making a big deal about it, but [Kopitar has] been doing everything for us,” Greene stressed. “He hasn’t been scoring, but he logs twenty-something minutes on the ice, plays well, and does everything. He’s on the ice in every situation.”
“If you ask anyone in here if his play has dipped at all, I don’t think so,” Greene added. “It’s just that he’s not finding the back of the net. He’s been our best player the whole year.”
The Kings’ penalty-killing, now ranked third in the NHL with an 88.3 percent rating, was stellar once again, including killing off a four-minute Canucks power play after Richards took a double minor for high sticking at 8:59 of the second period.
“Quick has been great for us, and he shut the door there,” said Greene. “That was huge, especially [after] losing Richards. He’s a big part of our penalty-kill. We had to patch that together. Getting that kill was big for us.”
Kopitar’s goal came right after that kill.
“I don’t know what it was…we had 1:40 left on the four-on-three, and to come right back and score a goal was huge,” said Kopitar. “It flattened them out.”
But Kopitar noted that their defensive effort was at least as important as their offensive outburst.
“Any time you can score, it’s nice, but it’s a pretty big thing to hold them to one goal,” Kopitar emphasized, knowing that the Canucks are among the best offensive teams in the league (third in goals scored per game). “Quick was great in the net, as always, for us. The bottom line is that we got the two points.”
Although former head coach Terry Murray emphasized rolling four lines, he often shortened his bench in critical situations. In contrast, Sutter has given his third and fourth lines greater responsibility and more ice time, at least for now.
“We’ve been having success rolling four lines, and that’s what we did,” said Greene. “We got a big goal out of our third line tonight, and that’s what it takes sometimes. They scored [the first goal early in the first period], and then we get one right away. That’s a confidence boost.”
Sutter Tinkers With Line Combos
With his team struggling mightily to score goals, Sutter tinkered with his line combinations, moving Richards to left wing with Kopitar at center and Dustin Brown on right wing. The other lines were:
Dustin Penner – Jarret Stoll – Williams
Richardson – Andrei Loktionov – Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford – Colin Fraser – Trent Hunter
Although conventional wisdom dictated that the opposition would be able to key on Kopitar’s line with the second line being much less of a threat without Richards, these line combinations worked…for one game, anyway, and the Kings got significant contributions from Loktionov and Voynov, who contributed two assists each.
“We’ve been playing pretty good,” said Sutter. “If you watched the Chicago or the Winnipeg game [last week], there are a lot of steps that we’ve tried to make. I think we got contributions from different guys, which is really good.”
“We had two or three of those types of plays [like the one Kopitar scored on],” added Sutter. “Mike Richards had that same type of play. Stoll’s line had a lot of those opportunities, too. Loktionov’s line—they were all good. If we don’t play [like that, the Canucks] will kick your [rear end].”
Sutter may go back to a more conventional lineup, moving Richards back to centering the second line, but if Loktionov continues to contribute while playing at center, his natural position, he may not have to.
Indeed, he will try his somewhat unconventional line combinations again.
“We talked about it,” Sutter explained. “Loktionov prefers to play center, but he has to do what we want him to do as a center. I’m going to trust that [he will] try to do that, and we’ll try it again.”
“It’s easy to switch guys around, Mike Richards, Colin Fraser,” Sutter elaborated. “Tonight, there was a lot more of using three as a group than, probably, in any other game we’ve played [under his tenure].”
Attitude, Confidence Are Keys
With the Kings on a roll to start 2012, what has been the difference?
Greene pointed out it is not their system that has changed. Rather, the difference is their mindset.
“It’s just a different attitude,” he noted. “Maybe we needed a little change, and that’s what we got. [Sutter is] getting a lot of good play out of a lot of guys right now.”
Kopitar went a little deeper.
“It says we have a lot of character, and that we can definitely do it,” said Kopitar. “Now it’s just a matter of doing it night in, and night out. That’s what Darryl is pushing for us. We have to recognize it, build on this win, and get going.”
“It shows a lot about our game right now, because Vancouver is always aggressive, they’re always on the puck pretty quick,” added Kopitar. “Tonight, we matched their intensity, and every time you do that, you spend a lot more time in the offensive zone than you do defending.”
“We have to build on that. Darryl’s been saying that the whole time. We have to be quicker on pucks, we have to recover more pucks, especially in the offensive zone. When you recover, you have possession time, and you get chances off that. You want to build on that, and keep going.”
The trick is to get everyone to do that consistently.
“We’re just trying to get everybody to do that,” said Sutter. “It can’t be hit and miss. We all have different levels, or a different skill set, right? If they all can all try and do a little bit more of a push, they can all play at a higher level. It’s just getting everybody to do it.”
“As long as we get the commitment to what we’re trying to do, then we’re going to be fine,” added Sutter.
Sutter emphasized that confidence is always key.
“The greatest loss you can have is a loss of confidence,” he noted. “If anybody was struggling with confidence, it’s not my job to pile dirt on them. It’s to try to help them out of it.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re always going to win, but as long as they’re going in the right direction, that’s a good thing.”
- The Kings have won three straight at home.
- The Kings have now killed 26 straight penalties. The team record is 46 in 2001-02.
- The Kings have killed 73 of their last 76 penalties (96.1 percent).
- The Kings have allowed 41 goals in the last 19 games (2.16/game).
- The Kings have allowed two goals or less in 22 of 39 games (15-3-4 in those games).
- The Kings are now 10-0-0 when scoring three-plus goals in a game.
- The Kings are 13-5-1 when scoring a power play goal in a game.
- The Kings are now 70-0-4 in their last 74 games when leading after two periods.
- Quick has a 2.02 gaals-against average (GAA) and a .933 save percentage in his last 15 games, and is 5-0-1 in his last six games with a 1.44 GAA and a .951 save percentage.
- Williams has seven points in the last eight games (two goals, five assists).
- Loktionov had his second career-multi-point game (first multi-assist game).
- The Kings are now 6-8-3 all-time on New Years Eve (tonight was only the second home game on New Years Eve, both against Vancouver).
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed):
Matt Greene (2:11)
Anze Kopitar (4:34)
Darryl Sutter (4:22; edited for language)
Game Highlights From NHL Video On YouTube
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming games against the Colorado Avalanche (January 2, 2012, 7:30 PM – Avalanche vs. Kings), the Coyotes (January 5, 7:30 PM – Coyotes vs. Kings), as well as for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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