EL SEGUNDO, CA — As the Los Angeles Kings begin a tough, four-game road trip tonight in Nashville, they find themselves in ninth place in the Western Conference with 72 points, one point behind the eighth-place San Jose Sharks, and three points behind the Dallas Stars for the Pacific Division lead.
The Nashville Predators, currently fifth in the Western Conference with 83 points, are playing extremely well, especially at home, where they have earned a 21-7-5 record this season.
In fact, the Predators have not lost in regulation time in their last twelve home games, earning a 10-0-2 record during that stretch, their last home loss coming on January 5, a 4-1 loss to the Stars.
“[Nashville] is a tough place to play,” said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. “They haven’t lost since Christ was a child.”
Moving right along…the Kings suffered a 2-1 loss at Nashville on February 27, a game in which they felt that they played well.
“We played really, really well in Nashville, and didn’t get one break,” Sutter noted. “The next night, we went to Minnesota and didn’t play as well and we got a break in the first minute.”
The Kings will need to put in the same kind of effort this time around, and more.
“They have a marquee goalie [in Pekka Rinne],” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “We have to get in front of him, and disrupt him a little more than we did in our last game there. That’s got to be a focus for the forwards, getting around the net, and making it hard for him.”
“Just do things right and continue the work ethic that we have, and let ‘er rip,” said Sutter.
The trip continues on March 8 at Columbus, followed the next night with a back-to-back game at Detroit, which recently set a National Hockey League record with 23 consecutive wins at home.
To make matters worse, the last time the Kings faced the Detroit Red Wings, they were embarrassed, 8-2, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on December 17.
On the bright side for the Kings, they earned a 3-1-0 record against the mighty Red Wings last season.
“Last year, we played really well against them,” said Brown. “I think we went 3-1 against them. At this point in the year, you can’t think about how good a team is. It’s all about a battle of wills.”
The road trip concludes on March 11 at Chicago, currently sixth in the Western Conference with 79 points.
Don’t look now, but three of those four games are against opponents who are ahead of the Kings in the standings, making the trip that much tougher, and the stakes for the Kings could not be much higher—the Kings probably need to return home with a 3-1-0 record on the trip to have a realistic chance for a playoff berth.
But the addition of forward Jeff Carter, as reported in this space on March 5, has given the Kings that additional threat that has been missing from their lineup.
“Every game is so big now,” Brown stressed. “It’s so tight, everyone’s looking for points, any way they can get them. It’s important for us to focus. We’re going to be on the road, but having multiple threats, offensively, it kind of nullifies that match-up [with teams pitting their top defensive pair against center Anze Kopitar’s line], as much as it can on the road. Coming down the stretch, our best players have to be our best players.”
But the improvement in the offensive zone began a couple of games before Carter’s arrival, primarily because the Kings began to attack the middle of the ice, rather than cycle the puck endlessly along the boards and in the corners, which they had been doing virtually all season long.
“We’ve been a good cycle team for a couple of years now, but we’ve over-cycled,” Brown explained. “[Now], it’s bringing awareness to, maybe, a cycle or two, and then, challenging a [defender by] bringing [the puck] to the net. I think you’re starting to see that in our game. Again, it comes back to getting into the middle of the ice.”
“You can only cycle for so long,” Brown elaborated. “We’ve been working on our offense. Even today [in practice], we were working on bringing it to the net, bringing it to the net.”
The Kings’ power play has also been on the upswing lately, with five goals on their last 17 chances with the man advantage, clicking at a 29.4 percent rate, which would have the Kings leading the league in power play scoring if that was their rating for the season. In any case, it is a far cry from their season average of 16.3 percent, good for 21st in the NHL.
“Our power play is another thing,” Brown noted. “It’s been a lot more productive the last four or five games. Our power play [started off great, but dropped off a cliff after six weeks]. But the last five or six games, we’ve been getting chances, and we’ve been getting goals. That goes a long way.”
Arguably, the biggest reason for the power play’s rise has been the play of defenseman Alec Martinez, who has gone from being in and out of the lineup to being a fixture in the lineup since February 4.
Martinez has contributed four assists in the last six games, two of them being first assists on the power play, the result of him getting the puck to the net.
“On the power play, especially, what I’ve noticed, at least with my unit—we switched the units a few games ago, Martinez and Slava [Voynov] have been doing a really good job of getting the puck to the net,” said Brown. “For the guys who play the front of the net, it’s one of the more frustrating things when you’re standing there, and the puck is not getting to the net.”
Indeed, defensemen not getting the puck to the net, either because a point shot gets blocked, or because they fail to get a shot off at all, has been an acute, chronic problem for the Kings, going beyond this season.
“When the puck gets to the net, you find ways to get sticks on pucks, and battle in front of the net, and you start scoring goals,” Brown explained. “[Martinez] has a good, hard shot, and I think, with Martinez, in particular, he understands that very seldom is he going to score a goal from [the point].”
“[Brown’s power play goal against Chicago on February 25], and the power play goal last night [against Anaheim on March 3] were off the goalie’s pads—six inches [off the ice],” Brown elaborated. “They can’t control the rebound [in that situation]. He’s been going a great job of getting the puck to the net in the right areas.”
In order to return home with a realistic chance to make the playoffs, the Kings must be on top of their game, and much of that will depend on their preparation.
“I think our work has been there, pretty consistently, all year,” said Brown. “It’s our preparation, as a team. I think last night [against Anaheim] was a big confidence boost, considering the magnitude of the game for both teams. Getting a huge win—we just have to build on that.”
“We’re capable of playing a really good game,” added Brown. “It’s more about our preparation. That’s lacked in some games. You’ve got to have everyone ready, both individually, and as a team. Every once in awhile, you’ll have a player or two takeover a game. But, at this time of year, the little things make a big difference.”
If you read between the lines, Brown is not just a player talking to the media here. Rather, that’s a captain challenging his teammates to step up.
“We have to be ready,” he emphasized. “There are teams on this road trip who are playing really good hockey. We have to be prepared to grind games out.”
Or as Sutter put it, regarding his team’s upcoming opponents on the road trip…
“There ain’t no weak sisters.”
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