Los Angeles Kings Aware Of Task At Hand To Start Second Half Of The Season

Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter (right) talks with
goaltender Jonathan Quick (left) during a recent practice at the
Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California.
Photo: David Sheehan
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — The second half of the 2011-12 National Hockey League season begins this afternoon for the Los Angeles Kings, who are certainly not where they were expected to be in the standings at this point in the season.

Indeed, the Kings are supposed to be contenders for the Pacific Division title, and for the top spot in the Western Conference. But heading into action on January 7, the Kings are seventh in the conference, just one point away from falling out of playoff contention.

But the Kings are also just one point out of the division lead, and from third in the conference, and they are just six points behind the Vancouver Canucks, who lead the conference with 53 points.

Last season, the Western Conference was ultra-competitive, with ten points separating the conference champion Canucks from the eighth-place Chicago Blackhawks. There was also just a two-point difference between fourth place and eighth.

Fast forward to this season, and it’s the Wild Wild West all over again.

For some of you, that phrase might bring you visions of actors Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. For others, that vision might be one of old school rap artist Kool Moe Dee. But whatever the case, the West is, once again, wild, with only six points separating first place from eighth, and with just three points between fourth place and eighth.

The close quarters has teams feeling the pressure, and the Kings are no exception.

“We can’t afford to let anything slip,” said right wing Justin Williams. “We know where we stand. We’re six points out of first, but we’re also [one point] out of ninth.”

“It’s a fine line,” added Williams. “If you win a couple in a row, you’re in there, but for how long? We’ve got to keep the push going to get ourselves where we want to be.”

“The real math is…tonight is game 41, halfway,” said head coach Darryl Sutter, following his team’s 1-0 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 5. “You can see what the numbers would be to be a playoff team. If [everything] holds, whomever is in eighth place tonight, whatever [their point total is], that has to be your goal.”

“That’s how close it is, and it’ll be like that at the end,” added Sutter. “It’s all within three or four wins, and three or four points.”

Sutter has stressed improving their record at home, given the fact that the Kings have often struggled within the confines of Staples Center.

“That’s one thing Darryl has really been harping on—that when we’re at home, we’ve got to get those points,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’ve got to get two points every night. We know we let one [point] slip the other night [in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche on January 2]. That was a pretty disappointing loss, so we came out hard here tonight [against the Coyotes]. We knew it was a division game against an opponent we play a lot. To get the two points was huge.”

“Every day [on the dry erase board in the Kings dressing room at their practice facility] is ‘homers, homers, homers,’ [referring to home games],” Williams noted. “He didn’t make us feel bad, but he made us upset that we lost that last point to Colorado. He said that we let one slip there, let’s make sure we push right back, and get it back tonight {against Phoenix].”

“We’ve established a pretty decent home record, but we want Staples Center to be a [more difficult] place to play [for opposing teams],” Williams added.

Is Doughty Finally Heating Up?

Scoring a goal in a game is not necessarily an indicator of anything for any particular player. But after scoring the overtime game-winner against the Coyotes, perhaps there is some light finally shining through from the end of the tunnel for the struggling Doughty.

“[That] was huge,” he said. “I haven’t been scoring a lot this year, and I was finally able to contribute on the scoresheet for the team. But, most important, we got the win.”

“I just wanted to get into the play,” he added. “I saw that we had control of the puck, so I raced up to the blue line. [Center Jarret] Stoll made eye contact, and he made a nice pass. Then, I just tried to drive [to] the net. Sometimes, you’ve got to score those dirty goals like that.”

With just three goals so far this season, Doughty is one among many Kings who need to score a lot more dirty goals.

“I guess it’s a little surprising, but, for me, it’s mostly frustrating,” Doughty said of his lack of production. “I know they come in bunches, and now that I got this one, and got the monkey off my back, I think a lot more will come in these next few games.”

After the game, Sutter noted that the dirty, ugly goals look just as good as the pretty ones on the scoresheet.

“[It was a] one-inch goal,” said Sutter. “Thirty years from now, he’ll say he went end-to-end, deked [Phoenix goalie Mike Smith] out, and slid it under him.”

Kings Pulling Out The Kitchen Sink To Fix Offense?

Earlier this week, former Kings star right wing Bernie Nicholls, who still holds the team record for most goals in a season with 70 in 1988=89, arrived at the Kings practice facility in El Segundo to work with the team.

Although no one expected overnight success, Nicholls did receive some friendly ribbing for the Kings’ “improved” offense in their last game {against the Coyotes], when they scored just once.

As pure a goal scorer as they come, Nicholls could help the Kings, especially on their struggling power play, which started the season in the top ten, but has nose dived to 27th in the NHL, with a dismal 13.8 percent rating.

Center Mike Richards expects the power play to improve, but, as stated earlier, it will not happen overnight.

“The power play is all about reading and reacting off of each other, and building chemistry,” he said. “It’s not going to happen right away, but through the course of a year, if you keep doing it, and keep the communication going, that’s when things start paying off.”

Despite the Kings’ seemingly overwhelming offensive woes, Richards is preaching “stay the course.”

“[We] just [need to] do the same things we’re doing,” Richards stressed. “We’re getting better, as a team, and that’s what you want to do. You always want to get better as the year goes on. When you do that, you hope to peak at the end of the year [heading into the playoffs].”

“It’s all about getting better, and we can get better in a lot of different scenarios,” Richards added. “Scoring goals is [an important factor], but, at the same time, keeping [pucks] out of our net is also a concern. We don’t need more goals if we’re going to win, 1-0 or 2-0. That’s why there’s an emphasis on turnovers and defense. As long as we keep getting better at those things, everything’s going to come along with it.”

The Kings are currently dead last in the NHL, scoring a measly 2.07 goals per game. Without more scoring, goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier will be under excessive pressure to channel Georges Vezina, Patrick Roy or Rogie Vachon, night in and night out.

But Richards brushed that notion aside.

“You could put [the pressure] on the defense or the offense,” he noted. “It’s six in one hand, half-a-dozen in the other. We know the system that is going to give us success.”

“Defense wins championships,” he added. “I’m a firm believer in that. If you can play good defense, we’re going to play less of it, and we’ll play less of it if we play [more] in the offensive zone, which is going to allow us to score more goals.”

When asked what his team needs to focus on heading into the second half of the season, Sutter echoed Richards’ remarks, but added that developing chemistry on his forward lines is also needed.

“[We need] to work on finding ways to score more goals, and not give up any,” said Sutter. “It’s pretty clear, when you think about it. It’s to find ways to get more opportunities, and to find the right fits.”

“We’ve already moved guys around a lot,” added Sutter. “Other than the Stoll line, everybody’s played with different partners, different lines. We’ll continue to work at it.”

Jonathan Quick: Team Leader, Best Player?

After practice on January 6, Sutter had very high praise for Quick, who earned his sixth shutout of the season against the Coyotes.

Heading into action on January 7, Quick is ranked fourth in the league in goals-against average (1.95), sixth in save percentage (.933), sixth in wins (18), and first in shutouts.

“He’s in the top five or six in every category, he’s got six shutouts,” Sutter noted. “We just have to manage him properly. I think he’s in the top four in minutes played. We’re going to have to be careful with that. But we’re fortunate to have the young goalies that we have. He’s a real good athlete, a real good competitor”

But Sutter went even deeper.

“He’s one of those goalies who you think has really good leadership skills,” Sutter emphasized. “He’s a big part of the [team] identity, maybe the major player in that.”

“He doesn’t get enough credit,” Sutter added. “It’s normal for cities like this to jump on the star wagon, that flash-and-dash stuff, [yet] he’s clearly the team’s best player.”

Sutter’s Enthusiasm Having The Desired Impact

Although he has not changed the Kings’ system, Sutter’s approach is a bit different, and his enthusiasm appears to be infectious.

“It’s just something different,” said Williams. “It keeps us fresh, it keeps us on our toes, and we’re enjoying the up tempo style he’s bringing here, the excitement and the enthusiasm. We’re feeding off of that.”

“I think you can tell in practice,” added Williams. “Guys are smiling, guys are excited, and they’re skating pretty hard. His enthusiasm is rubbing off on us.”

Sutter has also stressed keeping the players together.

“There’s just a little more structure to their routine,” Sutter explained. “They do more together, especially on game days. We’re trying to keep them together more, trying to get everybody communicating more, interacting a little bit more, as a staff, and as a team.”

Since Sutter took over as head coach on December 20, Kings are unbeaten in regulation play, with a 5-0-3 record, earning 13 out of a possible 16 points.

“The boys are playing great right now, he’s doing a great job,” said Doughty. “He’s making sure we’re hard on pucks, and he’s not letting us step off the pedal one bit. He’s making us work hard, and be faster on pucks, whichever zone it’s in. That’s been a key reason for our success.”

Raw Audio Interviews: Phoenix Coyotes vs. Los Angeles Kings, January 5, 2012

(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)

Drew Doughty (1:50)

Jonathan Quick (1:29)

Darryl Sutter (5:48)

Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, January 6, 2012

(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)

Justin Williams (2:54)

Darryl Sutter (5:43)

Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming games against the Washington Capitals (January 9, 2012, 7:30 PM – Capitals vs. Kings), the Dallas Stars (January 12, 7:30 PM – Stars 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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