Los Angeles Kings Need Early-Season Version Of Mike Richards To Return

Center Mike Richards has struggled since returning from a concussion on December 22, 2011. The Los Angeles Kings desperately need him to regain his early-season form.
Photo: David Sheehan
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — With an assist on Dustin Penner’s goal at 17:46 of the second period, giving the Los Angeles Kings their final margin of victory in a 3-1 win at Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, center Mike Richards ended an eight-game point scoring drought.

Richards’ performance in this game may have been his best since returning to the lineup after missing eight games due to a concussion that he suffered on December 1, 2011, when the Kings handed the visiting Florida Panthers a 2-1 defeat.

But since returning on December 22 (a 3-2 shootout win against the Anaheim Ducks at Staples Center in Los Angeles), Richards has been a mere shell of his former self.

Indeed, Richards was the Kings’ best skater until he went down with the concussion, having scored eleven goals with nine assists for twenty points, with a +3 plus/minus rating in 25 games. Add to that his solid defensive and special teams play, Richards was easily the Kings’ most valuable skater.

But since his return from the concussion, Richards has not been able to reach that same level of play. In fact, after a hot start, scoring a goal in each of his first two games after being activated from injured reserve, he has scored just three goals with three assists for six points in 22 games.

A couple of weeks ago, already mired in whatever the malaise is that has bogged down his game, Richards seemed to be oblivious to his situation.

“I thought I actually played pretty good the last couple of games,” he said on January 18, following a 2-1 overtime loss at Edmonton on January 15, and a 3-2 shootout win at Vancouver on January 17, games in which his play actually left much to be desired.

Richards sang a different tune on February 6, after the Kings suffered losses at St. Louis and Carolina to start their current two-week, six-game road trip, while Staples Center hosts the Grammy Awards.

“I feel good out there,” he told Rich Hammond of lakingsinsider.com. “That’s what is frustrating. When you’re feeling good on the ice, you think that good things should come from it. It’s frustrating when you work so hard and get nothing from it.”

“Everybody goes through it,” he added. “It’s something that you just have to fight through.”

Richards is centering a line with two players who have struggled to score all season long, Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll, which certainly isn’t helping him get untracked.

“He’s a real honest player,” head coach Darryl Sutter told Hammond. “He shows up 99 percent of the time. If you’re just measuring it with stats, well, his wingers have to got to score.”

There is no question that Penner and Stoll need to start producing. However, Richards’ problems began before he was moved between Penner and Stoll. As such, those pointing fingers solely at his current line mates should re-think that line of thought. After all, Richards played on the top line for awhile, with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, with no discernible improvement.

Although the Kings’ problems in the offensive zone are apparent throughout all of their forward lines, Richards’ production through the first 25 games of the season might be what the Kings are missing most right now. If he can raise his game back to that level, he would take pressure off of Kopitar and the first line—something he was acquired to do in the first place. That would have a cascading, positive effect on the Kings’ offense, which needs all the help it can get, scoring just 2.11 goals per game (ranked last in the league through games played on February 7).

Clifford On The Rise

Los Angeles Kings left wing Kyle Clifford has two goals
and an assist in his last five games.
Photo: David Sheehan
To end the 2010-11 season, rookie left wing Kyle Clifford came out of nowhere to lead the Kings in scoring during the playoffs, with three goals and two assists for five points in six games, and because of that, expectations for him coming into this season were very high.

For whatever reason, Clifford buckled under the pressure, to some extent, at the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign. Although he plays a third-line banger role, his play was mostly in-between for much of the season—not enough physical play to be effective on the forecheck, his defensive play took a step back, and, even though he is not expected to rack up points every night, he scored just one goal with four assists for five points in the first 41 games of the season. Compared to the same stretch of games last season, when he scored three goals and added four assists for seven points, Clifford appeared to have regressed a bit.

But over the last five games, Clifford has shown signs of heading back into positive territory, having scored two goals with one assist, including the game-winner at Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, scored on a breakaway.

Even though his goal at Tampa Bay came after he stepped out of the penalty box, behind the Lightning defenders, a big reason for Clifford’s recent success is that the play of his entire line has been a big bright spot of late.

“We’re burying our chances,” said Clifford. “We’ve had chances all year but [now], around the net, we’re getting that bounce. We’re really bearing down, and our will to score is paying off.”

“You want to come out [playing] big and strong,” added Clifford, who has been on a line with center Colin Fraser, and right wings Trent Hunter or Kevin Westgarth. “That’s the role for our line, to come out with some energy, and get some physical, cycle play going on.”

“We all kind of play the same way. We’re real simple, and get pucks in deep. We get some hits going, and that builds energy for our team, and for [our line], too.”

Sutter has noticed a definite uptick in Clifford’s play.

“[He has greater] confidence, without any doubt,” Sutter noted. “I don’t think it’s [just] that he’s produced offensively [over] the last few games. I think, just the last 15 games, you can see that he feels better about himself, and about his game.”

In case you missed it, Clifford recorded a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” on January 23, when the Kings defeated the Ottawa Senators, 4-1, at Staples Center.

In that game, Clifford quickly got into a fight with Senators forward Zenon Konopka, at 2:51 of the first period. He followed that with an assist on defenseman Willie Mitchell’s goal at 15:39 of the first period, and a goal of his at 11:08 of the second period—a goal, an assist, and a fight—to complete the Gordie Howe Hat Trick.

Clifford indicated that there was some wagering going between himself and Westgarth, the Kings’ enforcer, on who would be the first to record a Gordie Howe Hat Trick.

“Me and Westy had a bet—[whomever] got it first gets a nice Porterhouse [steak] at the restaurant of our choice,” said Clifford. “We’ve had the bet going ever since we met each other. It’s almost like a sigh of relief, since it’s been two years now.”

“We’ve been struggling with it, [wanting] to get the monkey off our backs,” added Clifford. “It’s definitely a good feeling. I once [ate] a 52-ounce [Porterhouse]. We’ll see if we can top that.”

Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home games against the Phoenix Coyotes (February 16, 7:30 PM – Coyotes vs. Kings), the Calgary Flames (February 18, 7:00 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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