LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — On January 9, the Los Angeles Kings, owners of the worst offense in the National Hockey League, averaging just 2.09 goals per game, miraculously scored five goals against the Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals, in a decisive 5-2 victory, shocking a sell-out crowd of 18,118 fans at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
That night, fans were so thoroughly shocked at the Kings’ offensive explosion that throughout the arena, they were pinching each other to make sure they weren’t dreaming. Some made appointments with psychiatrists, fearing that they were suffering from some sort of mental breakdown. Others were fearful that the end of the world was upon us, and began to get their affairs in order.
Seriously speaking, that massive offensive output from the Kings was a rarity this season. After all, they have only scored three goals or more (during regulation play) twelve times in 43 games this season (through games played on January 11).
And talk about extremes. Just one game prior, the Kings were shutout on home ice by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the worst team in the league, who handed the Kings a 1-0 defeat on January 7.
In that game, the Kings had eight opportunities with the man advantage, but really never came close to scoring.
“I don’t care how many power plays it is, as long as we get one, or two, or three—anything,” said forward Jarret Stoll. “We’re pressing. You could tell there, later on in the game. They were blocking everything. Three-quarters of our shots probably didn’t make it to the net. But every team does that. We’ve got to find a way. We all know we haven’t scored many goals.”
“It’s not like we’re playing badly, but we just can’t find a way to put that darned thing into the net,” added Stoll. “The power play was, obviously, the number one key to the game. We’ve got to score a goal there, or two, or three.”
Blue Jackets goaltender Curtis Sanford played a solid game. Nevertheless, with eight power play chances, a team must score at least once.
“We’ve got to find ways to score goals,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “He made some pretty good saves on our power play, but the bottom line is that you’ve got to find ways to score goals on the power play.”
Despite the loss, and his team’s utter failure with the man advantage, head coach Darryl Sutter was not disappointed in his team’s performance.
“We played hard,” he said. “We did everything we wanted to do, except score on the power play, so I don’t think you beat’em up over that.”
“I thought we dominated the play,” said Brown. “We just didn’t score a goal. We were ready to play, our preparation was there. I thought we were ready to go today, from a physical standpoint, from an emotional standpoint. It wasn’t like we walked through this game. We just have to find the back of the net.”
Sanford’s counterpart, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, also played a solid game, allowing just one goal. But he got no support from his team’s offense.
“If he gives up one, we should be able to win the game,” center Anze Kopitar lamented. “It shouldn’t be a problem, but it is a problem right now, so we have to fix it.”
“Our start was pretty decent,” Kopitar added. “We got a couple of really good kills, and away we went. But the power play was the story. We didn’t put it together.”
Fast forward to Monday night, with the high-powered Capitals in town, the Kings did a complete 180-degree turn.
“It was important to score some goals,” said defenseman Jack Johnson. “We didn’t score one goal in regulation in two games. That was pretty frustrating.”
After giving up on early goal off a turnover, Jonathan Bernier settled down, and played a solid game in goal for the Kings.
“It’s a great feeling to give our goalies some breathing room, finally,” Johnson noted. “They’ve been playing out of this world for us, all year. It’s nice to give them a break.”
What was behind the offensive juggernaut?
“I thought we were a little bit more creative tonight,” Johnson noted. “Our first option wasn’t just dumping the puck in, and giving it right back to them. We were looking to make plays, and gain the zone with possession, which should be our number one objective every time. When you dump it in, sometimes you’re just giving it right back to them. You can’t keep giving [the puck] back to skilled teams, and I thought we were really good at that tonight. Hopefully, that continues.”
“It’s a great feeling for all the guys. It’s been a frustrating year, not scoring,” Johnson added. “When you can have a night like this, it’s pretty nice. After the last two games, if you can’t score in regulation in two games, you’re ready to blow your brains out, so it’s a relief to have games like this. It’s a nice reward for hard work.”
“It’s good to score, and we got’em from all the lines,” said Sutter. “It wasn’t like it was from one guy, or just the guys who usually do that stuff.”
Indeed, contributions from unexpected sources provided a boost as well, and not just on the scoresheet.
“We got timely goals from our third and fourth line,” said left wing Dustin Penner. “ [Left wing Kyle] Clifford had a great game, and [right wing] Tim Hunter made a great play on that [goal]. We’ve had contributions from all four lines. Hopefully, we’ll get more from the top two.”
“I still think our top players can be better, but you’re starting to see our third and fourth lines starting to contribute in big ways,” said Brown. “That happened to be a couple of goals in the last game, but it’s not just our top two or three lines having those [long] cycle shifts. Our fourth line has been really good on the cycle.”
“If we have four lines doing that over the course of a game, you start to see it wear on the other team’s defense, and [on the Kings’ side], you’ve got guys like [defenseman] Drew [Doughty] who aren’t [spending] as much [time in the] defensive zone,” added Brown.
As Sutter indicated, what is most significant about the offensive explosion is that the Kings scored in several different ways, converting off the rush, after an offensive zone takeaway, and three times on players driving hard to the front of the net.
“I’ve been saying this for the last couple of weeks about getting that scoring mentality: when you look at Stoll’s goal, in particular, it’s not a pretty goal, but we need to get more of [that type] of goal,” Brown stressed. “Same with Clifford’s [first period] goal. That was getting the puck to the net and beating [his man] back to the net.”
“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job [of going to the net],” Brown added. “It’s just that in previous games, those pucks weren’t going in the net for us. Then we have a night where we score a couple of goals like that, [along with] a couple of takeaway goals, and a power play goal, which hasn’t happened in…I don’t know how long.”
“It’s a matter of finding different ways to score. We’re not going to score five goals a game [all the time]. Where we can get two or three goals, it’s [from plays like] Stoll’s and Clifford’s. It’s just a matter of getting pucks to the net, being around the net, and having a scoring mentality while we’re there.”
Indeed, scoring off the rush, or capitalizing on a turnover is important. But scoring those dirty, greasy goals in tight is where it’s at now in the NHL, and the Kings have not been good at that this season. As such, scoring three such goals against the Caps is significant, and it is something the Kings are working on.
Penner said that the Kings are also more determined on the ice.
“We managed to get five goals,” said Penner, who played a strong game, contributing an assist on Stoll’s second period goal. “Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come. We don’t want to jinx it, but in the games we were losing by a goal, 2-1, or 1-0, I think we’ve had similar chances, and just as many, but we just weren’t finding the back of the net. I think we had that little extra bit of focus and determination to get those goals.”
The Kings also imposed their will on the Caps, in terms of how the game progressed, dictating play from roughly the midpoint of the first period.
“We took our game to them,” Penner emphasized. “I think they had a tough time with the way we played.”
When was the last time the Kings did that?
Added emphasis on puck possession was a major factor in being able to control the game to the extent Penner mentioned.
“Dating back to when they let [head coach Terry Murray] go, [assistant coach John Stevens took over as interim head coach], and one thing he started preaching was holding onto the puck,” Brown noted. “That’s continued. We were a good cycle team before, and now, it seems like every game, we have two or three shifts where it’s extended. That’s the result of guys holding onto the puck.”
“The next step is getting around the net, bringing [the puck] to the net, and getting that scoring mentality,” Brown added. “It’s a work-in-progress.”
At practice on January 11, the final drill focused on net presence, and doing a better job of screening goaltenders.
“A lot of the drills in practice today was to give it to the defensemen, go to the front of the net, and find ways to score goals,” said Brown. “We have the skill set, and the type of players to do it, so it’s just a matter of working at it.”
Sutter stressed that getting in front of the goalie is not enough.
“We’re getting better at it,” said Sutter. “We just have to continue [to improve]. Everybody has to be better at it. It’s just not net presence and slot presence. Defensemen have to be quicker at moving pucks, and getting shots through, changing the angle on the goaltender. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the defenseman can do a lot better [job] of changing the angle out at the blue line. That way, the goalie has to move quickly, instead of just looking around someone.”
Going back to those three goals the Kings scored by driving hard to the net…it was not just players without the puck getting their noses dirty, looking for a loose puck at the front of the net. Rather, the Kings were also taking the puck there aggressively, a rare sight this season.
Brown pointed to Stoll’s goal as one example.
“Penner pretty much made that happen with Stoll’s goal,” he said. “He just took the guy on his back, and brought it to the net. He’s one of those guys who should do that every time, with his size, and his mobility. We’ve got other guys who can do it in different ways.”
“I think we have certain players who do that really well,” he added. “It’s just a matter of bringing an awareness to it. Like I said, we’re a really good cycle team. [But you can’t] cycle, cycle, cycle, and never bring it to the net. We can cycle it all we want, but we eventually have to bring it to the net.”
The Kings have increased their focus on getting bodies and pucks to the front of the net in practice.
“We’re trying to get all of our top players to be in traffic more, [to be] more forceful players, instead of fade-away players,” Sutter emphasized. “Everybody can be better at that. I think we were really good [at that in our] last game, but we have guys who can be better.”
“It’s not something where suddenly, all twelve [forwards] are going to be better at it,” Sutter added. “Everybody’s different, but if your guys who play a lot of minutes can do it consistently, it sets the bar for the group.”
Penner indicated the players are buying in.
“We’re working on that every day, from the habits we’re developing in practice,” he said. “As far as the drills we do over and over again, we’re doing drills that we haven’t done since I’ve been here that may seem simplistic, from a spectator’s standpoint, but they drive home a point, because we are creatures of habit. When we start doing those things in practice, they seem monotonous. ‘Why are we doing this again?’ But we can see it helping us.”
“Everyone’s sniffing around the net now,” he added. “We have the defensive stuff down pat. We keep saying the offense is going to come, but now, it has to. The last game, it did. Now we want to keep that up.”
“It’s only one game,” said Johnson. “We’ve got to do [that] a lot more. We’ve got to do it consistently. You can’t just do it once every twenty games.”
Power Play Still In Doldrums
Despite scoring a power play goal against the Caps on Monday night, the Kings are still ranked just 27th in the league, with a measly 13.5 percent rating.
To say that the power play has been a drag on the Kings’ offensive production is not just stating the obvious. Rather, it is an understatement of almost Biblical proportions, as their zero-for-eight struggle against Columbus indicates.
“They’ve got to just keep banging away,” said Sutter. “It ain’t about being fancy. [We just have to] keep trying to score goals. I think we can do better with the kids at the point, shooting, especially [Johnson], he could hit the net more. Kopitar can curl and shoot more. Our net presence has to be square with the goalie more.”
For Kopitar to “…curl and shoot more” would mean that he would have to change his routine of holding the puck along the half-wall, looking for a teammate to pass to. The problem is, the Kings stand around on the power play, making it awfully easy for penalty-killers. But early in the season, the Kings were among the top six power play teams in the league.
So what went wrong?
“I feel that we get too stagnant where, not only are we not moving—everyone has their positions on the power play,” Brown lamented. “I’d like to be in front [of the net], Kopitar would like to be on the half-wall, [right wing Justin] Williams, or [center] when Mike Richards is playing with us, down low. But I’m pretty sure those three players could be interchangeable, and move around a lot more.”
Indeed, the movement without the puck that was present in their power play early in the season has vanished.
“I think [movement] is key,” Brown stressed. “We’ve got really good players. They need to be interchangeable and move around. We’re too stagnant.”
“If you look at our [power play] goal in the last game, I was on the half-wall, which doesn’t happen very often,” Brown added. “But it’s a different look for the penalty-killers. If you scout us, and say, ‘OK. Kopitar’s on the half-wall, and he’s going to be there the whole game,’ it’s pretty easy to defend. For now, it’s myself, Williams, and Kopitar. If Williams is on the half-wall on the other side, with me low, and Kopitar in front, [penalty-killers] start thinking a little bit.”
“All the players are capable of making plays off the wall. All the players are capable of making plays [down] low. That hasn’t always been the case here. Kopitar has been our half-wall guy, and he is our best half-wall guy. But now we have some other guys who can actually make some plays there, so I think it’s about movement, and getting teams thinking a little bit.”
Raw Audio Interviews: Washington Capitals vs. Los Angeles Kings, January 9, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)>/p>
Jack Johnson (6:34)
Darryl Sutter (4:53)
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, January 11, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Dustin Brown (14:22)
Dustin Penner (4:50)
Darryl Sutter (5:58)
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming games against the Dallas Stars (January 12, 7:30 PM – Stars vs. Kings), and the Calgary Flames (January 19, 7:30 PM – Flames 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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