LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — With 18 games remaining in the Los Angeles Kings’ 2011-12 season, the numbers are certainly not their friend.
Last season, the eighth place Chicago Blackhawks earned the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 97 points, and if you look at that as a benchmark of sorts for this season, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the Kings are in deep, deep trouble in terms of earning an invitation to the National Hockey League’s post-season party.
Although it does not appear that it will take 97 points this season, as the teams ranked from sixth to 13th in the conference have been up and down in recent games, for argument’s sake, if they all continue at their current pace, the Phoenix Coyotes would finish atop the Pacific Division with 96 points, which would rank them third in the Western Conference.
The Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings are likely to battle it out for the conference championship, with the St. Louis Blues right behind them, possibly sneaking into the top spot in the conference. In any case, those three teams would take the first, second and fourth spots in the West.
The Nashville Predators could be a lock for fifth in the conference.
Where things get interesting is the battle for the final three playoff berths in the West.
Again, assuming teams play at their current pace for the season, the Blackhawks would finish with 96 points, sixth in the conference, followed by the San Jose Sharks in seventh, with 95 points.
The Dallas Stars would bring up the rear in the eighth and final playoff berth, with 92 points.
The remaining teams, again, if they stay on their current pace, would be the ninth-place Kings with 90 points, followed by the Colorado Avalanche (88), the Calgary Flames (87), the Anaheim Ducks (83), and the Minnesota Wild (83), respectively.
To be sure, the situation with all the teams is dynamic. They could maintain their current pace, or they may not. As such, no one can accurately predict exactly how the West will be won, so to speak. But no matter how you slice it, the Kings must pick up the pace in the win column, and in a big way. Further, they must do their best to win games in regulation time, avoiding overtime and shootouts. After all, the Kings not only lead the league in overtime/shootout losses, giving up valuable points, but they have already placed themselves in jeopardy because, “…the greater number of games won, excluding games won in the shootout,” is one of the tiebreakers in the standings.
To reach 93 points, which does not appear to be unrealistic for eighth place, the Kings must win eleven of their remaining 18 games, plus an overtime/shootout loss.
11-6-1? This Kings team? I can see many of you shaking your heads, or maybe hanging them, realizing that they have a far better chance of hitting the golf courses in mid-April than they do for a first round playoff appearance.
Nevertheless, perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Indeed, it is no secret that the Kings’ biggest problem this season has been goal scoring. But in their last five games, they have scored 14 goals, averaging 2.80 goals-per game.
If the Kings averaged 2.80 goals-per game this season, they would rank ninth in the league in goals scored, a very, very far cry from their pathetic, embarrassing, last-in-the-NHL 2.09 goals-per game, and yours truly would not be writing this story.
The problem over those last five games is that the Kings could only muster up a 2-2-1 record, and all against Western Conference rivals.
Back to that faint glimmer of light…
Arguably, the biggest reason the Kings have had so much trouble scoring goals this season is that they generally do not get traffic in front of opposing goaltenders, and they often fail to take the puck into the dangerous scoring areas, instead, cycling the puck on the perimeter endlessly.
Former head coach Terry Murray pleaded with his team to attack the net, and current head coach Darryl Sutter has echoed his predecessor’s pleas.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about since day one,” Sutter said about his team’s recent improvement in this area. “A lot of it has to do with who’s in the lineup, who you’re playing against, and how your top players are playing.”
“I always thought we stressed that from the beginning of the season, but it’s something we’ve put a lot more emphasis on [lately], since we’ve obviously had some goal droughts,” said center Mike Richards. “We still want to play good defense, but when you have the puck in the middle of the ice, you’re going to have more success. If we get pucks to the net more, we’re going to get those scrambles, and get pucks in those better areas.”
During their 4-0 blowout of the Blackhawks at Staples Center on February 25, right wing and team captain Dustin Brown recorded a natural hat trick (three consecutive goals scored), the third hat trick of his NHL career.
Brown may have been inspired by trade rumors swirling around him, just prior to the February 27 trade deadline. But it goes deeper than that, as the Kings mounted an attack in the offensive zone that had not been seen from them in recent memory—they consistently attacked the middle of the ice, and got bodies in front of the Chicago net—all four goals were scored either by attacking through the middle of the ice, or because of traffic in front of Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford.
“It was a really complete game,” Brown stressed after the game. “The last ten games—we’ve really been struggling. I think it’s really important for us to realize what we did tonight, and what it took to play that way. We’re playing for a [playoff] spot now. We need to be happy with that game, but also understand why we performed as well as we did.”
Why did they perform so well against the Blackhawks? One reason was that star center Jonathan Toews was out of the lineup, due to an upper body injury. But Brown had other ideas.
“It was our preparation,” he said. “Everyone’s capable of playing. It’s more about getting prepared the right way, and that’s the individual, and the team, collectively.”
“When we’re prepared, you don’t see the turnovers, you don’t see the little mistakes that make a big difference over the course of a game,” he added. “We didn’t make very many mistakes tonight.”
Brown also mentioned the change in their attack.
“That’s something we’ve been working on the past couple of days—getting into the middle of the ice, the scoring areas,” said Brown. “We’ve probably gotten away from that this year, as a whole. We need to bring awareness and focus to getting to the middle of the ice, getting into those good scoring areas. If you get a lot of our players into that area, they’re not going to miss too often.”
“[Brown] was going to the net, really good,” Sutter noted after the game. “When he was taking his shots, that’s where he was going, not across, or anywhere else. Just straight [ahead], and that’s the type of player he is. That’s always how he’s been.”
Despite the fact that he has not yet scored a goal or contributed an assist in three games with the Kings, the addition of forward Jeff Carter at the trade deadline has made a difference.
Indeed, Carter is a sniper, a shoot-first forward with size and speed, something the Kings did not have prior to his arrival.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s a new chapter in my career. There’s pressure to come in, and help these guys out. But I’m looking forward to it.”
“I think, my whole career, I’ve been a shoot first guy,” he added. “If I get an opportunity to put the puck on the net, it’s going to the net. I try to get it away as quick as I can. [Richards] knows that, so he’s going to go to those areas, and get rebounds. [Left wing Dwight King] is a big guy, who goes hard to the net, too.”
“He’s a skilled player, and he’s fast,” Richards said about Carter. “He adds that speed on the outside, and he’s a big guy. The transition to the wing [from center, where he played while with the Columbus Blue Jackets]—he’s starting to feel more comfortable with it. Hopefully, we can start producing a little bit more.”
Carter may be the only change in the Kings’ lineup, but he is not the only reason for the positive changes in their attack.
“I think we’re attacking the net [now] pretty good,” said center Anze Kopitar. “We’ve been shooting the puck a lot more than we did before. It’s just a matter of bearing down, and having that will to get to the middle of the ice, and try to create off that.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jeff is the only reason,” added Kopitar. “Certainly, it helps. He’s known as a goal scorer. Maybe some people are focusing on him. But I think it’s a commitment to [attacking the net], and making it happen.”
“As soon as Darryl came in, he’s been stressing that a lot. It’s been catching on, and everybody’s doing it now.”
After reading that, I know you are all probably asking, “what took you so long to figure that out?!”
At least in Kopitar’s case, Sutter pointed to his team’s relative youth.
“It’s difficult for Kopitar because he’s 24 years old,” said Sutter. “People forget that. [But] he really cares, and wants to be a really good player. He’s working at that.”
“He’s got to be a guy who plays in the middle of the ice,” added Sutter. “When he doesn’t, that’s the old perimeter player thing, right?”
Reading between the lines, Sutter apparently believes Kopitar needs to make an even greater push to take the puck into the middle of the ice, the dangerous areas, shoot the puck, or draw the defense to him and then, find the open man with a pass.
“It doesn’t matter what the sport is,” Sutter emphasized. “The guys who are better in the tough parts of the game are the best players. Doesn’t matter if it’s [Jarret] Stoll, Kopitar, Richards, or whomever it is. That’s the centerman’s job. The best centermen in the game—that’s what they do.”
Getting the Kings to attack through the middle of the ice on a consistent basis remains a work in progress.
“It’s something we have to work on, for sure,” Kopitar said while talking about his goal at Minnesota (a 4-0 win) on February 27. “The key on that goal was the speed through the middle of the ice, and getting the puck in the neutral zone. That’s what we’ve got to focus on—[generating] speed in the neutral zone. Then, you can attack the wide lanes, and make the plays inside.”
“We want to get the puck in the middle, obviously, to get into better scoring position,” said Richards. “When we get bodies to the net, we’re going to have more success. We just have more drive now to get the puck to the net, not only from the forwards, but [also] the defense.”
Execution on breakout plays from their own zone has often been a sore point for the Kings, and it has been a significant drag on their offense. Indeed, the Kings often let the gaps between the forwards and defensemen get too wide, forcing defensemen to attempt long clearing passes. The usual result is a turnover, and the inability to generate speed on attack through the neutral zone.
“That’s what you want to do–support your defenseman, and be available for your defensemen to hit you with a pass in stride,” Kopitar noted. “That’s one of the best things that can happen, [because] once you get it in stride, you have options.”
Going forward, if the Kings expect to pick up the pace in the win column, and earn that post-season party invite that they covet, attacking through the middle of the ice must be something they do game in, and game out.
“It’s just us getting the puck to the net, and trying to get our shot totals higher, and get grittier goals,” Richards noted. “If you try to be too cute, that’s when you start having problems.”
The Kings cannot afford such problems the rest of the way, especially with eleven of their remaining 18 games featuring opponents who are ahead of them in the standings. That is quite the tall order, and unless they have solved their problems in the offensive zone, the task at hand will be insurmountable.
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, March 2, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Anze Kopitar (3:33)
Mike Richards (2:21)
Jeff Carter (3:52)
Darryl Sutter (4:20)
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home games against the Anaheim Ducks (March 3, 7:30 PM – Ducks vs. Kings), the Detroit Red Wings (March 13, 7:30 PM – Red Wings 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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